Today the Saudis got a new Crown Prince. Stratfor explains how this might rock the region

Summary: Has the appointment of a new crown prince made Saudi Arabia more stable, or set off conflicts among the Princes that will bring it down? Either way, the result might transform the politics of the Middle East. Here is Stratfor’s analysis of this major event. Second of two posts today.

“{T}he Kingdom’s 80th birthday will take place four days from now … And throughout these eighty-some years that we have had our Kingdom, everybody keeps talking about an uncertain future for the Kingdom.”
— Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud (see Wikipedia) in an interview by Charlie Rose, September 2012.

Saudi flag

Prince Turki stated one of the great constants of US media coverage of the Saudi Princes. The classic is the 1994 book by Said K. Aburish, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud. Since then there have been thousands of articles by experts and gurus predicting the imminent fall of the Saudi Princes. Here are a selection of these from past 2 years.

Saudi Arabia Plunges into an Abyss” by John Robb at Global Guerrillas, Jan 2015. “It’s Time for the United States to Start Worrying About a Saudi Collapse” by John Hannah at Foreign Policy, Oct 2015 (he is with the Foundation for Defense of Democracy). “A Possible Coup in Saudi Arabia Signals the End of US Dominance in the Mideast” by David Oualaalou at the HuffPo, Oct 2015. “The Quiet Crisis in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” by Karl Vick in TIME, Jan 2016. “The collapse of Saudi Arabia is inevitable” by Nafeez Ahmed at Middle East Eye, Jan 2016 — “Deep-rooted structural realities means Saudi Arabia is on the brink of state failure, a process likely to take off in the next few years.” “Start Preparing for the Collapse of the Saudi Kingdom” by Sarah Chayes at Defense One, Jan 2016 (she is with the Carnegie, and served as special advisor to senior US generals in Afghanistan).

Yet despite a collapse in oil prices and 16 years of intense war in the region, the Princes still endure. This week the King made bold moves to change the power structure of the royal clan, shifting from the ever-changing mosaic of alliances among the princes to a more standard monarchical form. If successful, this might create a firmer foundation for the regime (I’m uncertain if Saudi Arabia is really a nation-state), and defy the critics yet again. But this move has the doomsters howling confidently yet again.

Here is Stratfor’s analysis of this event, affecting not just a key power in the Middle East, but a major power in the world’s energy and financial economies.

“Saudi Arabia’s ‘Mr. Everything’ Is Now Crown Prince, Too”

Stratfor, 21 June 2017.

After months of speculation and palace intrigue, Saudi King Salman shook up the kingdom’s line of succession on June 21 by naming his powerful son, Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and removing all titles from Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince. This is the second time Salman has overhauled the line of succession and the Saudi government since taking the throne in January 2015. The move is a controversial one, considering it cuts large and powerful segments of the royal family out of the succession plan. And should the young bin Salman ascend the throne, it could mean Saudi Arabia will be ruled for six decades by father and son.

Today’s announcement has several important implications. But none is as important as the amount of trust being placed in bin Salman, who has already amassed enough power to be dubbed “Mr. Everything” by some Western governments. As bin Salman has concentrated his power, bin Nayef has been increasingly sidelined. Today’s reshuffle will only remove him from power even further, ousting him from his position at the head of the Interior Ministry and from all other leadership roles.

The Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia: Bin salman vs. bin Nayef

The Next King.

If bin Salman becomes king, he will be the youngest Saudi ruler in modern history, able to potentially preside over decades of policy and reform in the kingdom. The crown prince is known for spearheading the country’s economic reform, an agenda he will likely continue to push, and he may well turn his attention to effecting social change as well.

Perhaps more important, bin Salman has a vested interest in trying to solve Saudi Arabia’s long-term economic and social challenges, including its overreliance on the oil sector and growing calls for more social liberties. Unlike Saudi leaders who have come before him attempting reform, he doesn’t have the luxury of kicking the can down the road; any procrastination would create problems that are his to fix later on.

The Price of Reform.

Still, change will come at a price. Any effort to push the boundaries of social reform in the kingdom risks ruffling the feathers of the conservative clerical establishment, which many in the royal family view as the foundation of the House of Saud’s legitimacy and support. Many Saudis are firm believers in the conservative social fabric of the country and could resent swift adjustments to social strictures. As a result, any reform must be undertaken carefully while gauging pushback from the public.

In fact, bin Salman already has had to retract some of his suggestions for remedying Saudi Arabia’s economic ills: In April, the king reinstated public sector bonuses, seven months after they were eliminated to improve the budget deficit. Popular resistance also prompted Salman to replace the water and electricity minister in April of last year when Saudis protested higher utility prices on Twitter.

Just because bin Salman is now closer to the throne doesn’t mean he will have an easier time pushing through his reforms. If the reshuffle has upset other members of the House of Saud — particularly third-generation descendants of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud who have been completely shut out of the line of succession — they will find ways to hamper the crown prince.

Nevertheless, bin Salman has made a name for himself at home and abroad. Not only has he been instrumental in leading the economic reform called for under the Vision 2030 platform, but he also has made his mark on Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and regional defense strategy in his position as the country’s defense minister. He has been particularly instrumental to the kingdom’s intervention in Yemen and to its increasingly aggressive stance toward Iran. (Last month he promised to move the fight against Tehran inside Iranian borders.)

Bin Salman has also worked hard to build a close relationship with the United States. But bin Nayef’s unseating removes a known partner to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Bin Salman has skillfully portrayed himself as someone who is fully aligned with the United States in fighting terrorism, but he lacks the decade of experience that bin Nayef accumulated in his campaign against al Qaeda. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, which was one of the first moves bin Salman made as defense minister, has proved costly and has become less and less popular. Bin Salman still faces the risk of blowback on that front.

With a long-term vision for reform, bin Salman has quickly risen within the halls of power. In doing so, he joins the ranks of other Gulf Cooperation Council leaders such as his new counterpart, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. But Saudi Arabia’s economic and social issues are far more difficult than those facing the United Arab Emirates, where Al Nahyan’s role is secure and well established. So although bin Salman is currently next in line for the throne, whether or not he actually becomes king will depend on how well he navigates the challenges of being crown prince — and how well he addresses the kingdom’s problems with concrete action.

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Mr. Everything’ Is Now Crown Prince, Too
is republished with permission of Stratfor.

See the next post: Stories about Saudi Arabia reveal mysteries of the most powerful kingdom.


About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, they help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

Here’s another — and darker — analysis of this event: “A family coup in Saudi Arabia” by Nick Butler (Visiting Professor at Kings College London).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Saudi Arabia, and especially these …

  1. Stratfor looks at the Saudi Princes’ plans for a 21stC Kingdom under their rule.
  2. Professor Vijay Prashad: Saudi Arabia Is in trouble & makes a big mistake.
  3. Stratfor looks at the next phase of the jihadist threat in Saudi Arabia.
  4. Stratfor describes the Qatar-Saudi conflict, a new fissure in the Middle East.

Recent books about Saudi Arabia

See the review of these books at the New York Review of Books.

The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism by Toby Matthiesen, Cambridge Middle East Studies,

Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt by Pascal Menoret, Cambridge Middle East Studies.

Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril by Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants.

Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond by Simon Ross Valentine.


10 thoughts on “Today the Saudis got a new Crown Prince. Stratfor explains how this might rock the region”

  1. Hi FM,

    FM> I’m uncertain if Saudi Arabia is really a nation-state

    I’m curious why it might not be. It seems to meet this fairly non-controversial definition:

    The nation-state “is one where the great majority are conscious of a common identity and share the same culture”

    I readily admit some of the issues brought up at the UNESCO site from which I snarfed the definition, e.g., increasingly polyethnic societies, boundaries not aligning with the people, etc. I am not being pedantic, I’m genuinely curious.

    This is an interesting development. Saudi Arabia has, at least from outward appearances, remained remarkably stable over the years, and the pressures and dynamics that affected the “Arab spring” countries haven’t manifested in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states, though this spat with Qatar is very interesting. Part of the stability may be attributable to resistance to change and the public rejection of “reforms” may well keep the Saudi-Arabia-is-dying set predicting its immanent demise for many more years to come.



    1. Bill,

      You are, of course, correct that Saudi Arabia meets the standard defining characteristics used by political scientists for a nation state.

      But there is an oddity. Nation States, according to most political theorists, emerged in the 19th century (Portugal and Holland, perhaps England, were a bit earlier). Part of that process was the separation of the ruler’s property from the national property and governments’ assets. Most European states completed this process by the mid-eighteenth century.

      That has not been done in Saudi Arabia, where the Princes treat Saudi Arabia as personal property — with an outright extractive policy. They’ll squeeze all they can out of it, and probably flee when there is no longer sufficient income to buy enough support.

      I can’t recall any actual nation-states in a similar situation. I can’t imagine why its people tolerate this.

      1. Hi FM,

        Thanks for pointing out the aspect of what we might call “classical” nation-state development whereby the property of the ruler and state were separated, and this was more or less done in most of Europe by the mid 19th century. That was a major piece I was missing in my thinking. They have been wrestling with that in England, even if it was nobles doing the struggling, since the Magna Carta (Church gets its won and London, ports, and cities are entitled to their liberties (as in areas where regalian rights were revoked) and free customs).

        FM> That has not been done in Saudi Arabia, where the Princes treat Saudi Arabia as personal property — with an outright extractive policy. They’ll squeeze all they can out of it, and probably flee when there is no longer sufficient income to buy enough support.

        FM> I can’t recall any actual nation-states in a similar situation. I can’t imagine why its people tolerate this.

        I have to think this is where forcing a rigid, deterministic, fundamentalist religion on the people has to help the folks in power. To say the way things are isn’t God’s will — what’s written is written — is heretical. Works the same way in North Korea, from the little I understand about that county’s internal workings. This is a good illustration of why our (American) grand strategies which incorporate the equivalence of human rights and multiculturalism are logically inconsistent. Freedom of and from religion and the right to free speech is incompatible with Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, Iran, many of the GCC states, etc., and, of course, it’s not just Islam.

        Thanks again!


  2. FM,

    Yemen shares a border with KSA and ;has about comparable population, and maybe first water starved country. That is not conducive to KSA not being affected by it because those who have been harmed have LONG memories.

    Something wrong with royal family when they permit a ruler with dementia to select his successor.

    McKinsey is harming companies let alone countries. All Gulf countries seem to think a MckInsey plan will show them how to prosper in post-oil age. For those with small population the damage prospects are not as high as for Saudi Arabia. The resource curse means have not invested in education. So rely on foreigners at all levels of employment -low skilled and above.

    The oil market is going to diminish since western countries are aging and because of climate change there is a push for using renewable fuel sources. The Saudi’s had a a certain period of time to invest oil revenues in people. They have not done that. Meanwhile young are booming and unemployment is rising. This is not good for stability.

    Decline may not have been predicted in timely manner by those who see the likelihood. But I think it is only a matter of time.


    1. Winston,

      Good point about Yemen. It’s population is 85% of that of Saudi Arabia. I thought it was smaller.

      “That is not conducive to KSA not being affected by it because those who have been harmed have LONG memories.”

      History doesn’t show that to be a rule. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

      “McKinsey is harming companies let alone countries.”

      I agree. CEOs hire McKinsey either to justify what they want to do — or if they’re brain-dead (i.e., out of ideas). Their advice is almost uniformly bad.

      “The oil market is going to diminish since western countries are aging’

      Unlikely. That might slow western growth, but not reverse it. Also, much of the developing and underdeveloped world has very low average ages — so they’ll be experiencing the rapid growth of 20 year olds becoming 45 years.

      “and because of climate change there is a push for using renewable fuel sources.”

      It’s not clear if share of renewable fuels in total energy use (not just electricity generation) is growing rapidly. History shows that these things are difficult to accurately predict (despite the confidence with which people make such predictions).

      “The Saudi’s had a a certain period of time to invest oil revenues in people.”

      I agree. They have accumulated dollars instead of building their society. Their great fear might happen: camels to helicopters to camels in a few generations.

      “Meanwhile young are booming and unemployment is rising. This is not good for stability.”

      I agree, that’s their weak point. Lavish spending has maintained stability. $50 oil is their top enemy.

  3. 1. Very true that the time the ME should have used oil cash productively was 40-50 years ago. There is certainly some possibility of the progression Camels-> B747-> Camels occurring.

    2. Besides the toxic sense of insecurity fueled by religion, a false sense of racial superiority (fuels laziness, entitlement) and of late this penchant/fad for ‘matryrdom’ (not just physically but more lethally thought wise)

    1+2 plus the fact that the so called Vision 2030 is just a ‘puffed up’ and ‘decorated’ mckinsey report in essence, implies that very likely the religious ‘kneecapping’ that has been so lethal for the ME is going to likely hamper any meaningful change from occurring.

    I cannot see how any prince (even the most ‘genius’ of them) can possibly prepare such a fatalistic, lazy and entitled populace for a so called ‘tech driven’, ‘green’ and ‘whatever’ led modernity (I cringe when consultants throw such jargon around without any idea as to what ground changes are needed to make it real)

    1. Ghalib,

      Nicely said! I agree on all points. Beginning the transition even 15 years ago might have worked.

      “I cringe when consultants throw such jargon around without any idea as to what ground changes are needed to make it real”

      It’s the sound of money being made. Water flows from high to low, heat flows from hot to cold, and money flow from foolish to smart.

  4. “It’s the sound of money being made.”–> true that Sir x1000 times…as the legendary Asterix Quote goes “Auri Sacra fames” or the accursed hunger for gold. (I think it was Virgil in the original, used cleverly in Asterix)

    nevertheless, I find the idea of ‘consultants’ making ‘strategy’ for companies risible to put it politely. in MBA school, our rather wise accounting professor told us once…

    “Data shows that usually 3 out of 4 consulting advisories are complete failures and the fourth succeeds usually because the CEO/company drives the process while using consultants intelligently as minions at best” —> else, usually the results are awful and personally speaking, it is a scandal these cretins in mckinsey etc get paid astronomical sums for the kind of imbecilic jargon filled fluff they sell as strategy (needs special chutzpah imho)

    I agree that even post Gulf war 1991, the Saudis & their GCC cousins had enough time to make decent gains for the future with their oil cash…instead they deliberately made the choice to continue religious wars and the world marches inexorably towards a bloody showdown 35-40 years later….

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