It is hard, to some degree at least, not to feel sorry for Muhammad bin Nayef. At the tender age of 57, the former Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, whose portfolio included the role of interior minister — has been kicked out on his ear. On June 21, he was deposed by royal decree, and relieved of all his duties. He had only been in the role since 2015.
The appointment of his replacement, Mohammad bin Salman, was a controversial choice among the House of Saud. In acceding to the Crown Princedom at the age of just 31, the new Prince Mohammad has leap-frogged a whole host of elder brothers who might have expected to be favored by the king, who appoints his Crown Prince. The youngest of nine children, Mohammad bin Salman might not have expected a look in, but he has always been his father’s golden boy. However, it was still a risky move on the part of King Salman, who is not just Prince Mohammad’s father but absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer and exporter of oil. While ruling the Saudi Arabia with an iron fist may suit those at the business end of the House of Saud, as well as those who can afford a life of unimaginable luxury thanks to the family’s vast oil wealth, it leaves those at the top with a peculiar vulnerability.
In Saudi Arabia more than perhaps anywhere else in the world, the personal and the political are mixed. Virtually everyone who holds any power in Saudi is a descendant of King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia, and family stability is of the utmost importance — whenever stability is threatened, the smooth running of the royal family is threatened, and when the royal family is threatened, Saudi Arabia as a whole is threatened. Prince Mohammad’s brothers have been snubbed — all eight of them — and should they choose to voice their displeasure over the matter, then King Salman may just have sparked a vicious dynastic dispute.
But the House of Saud may have more to worry about than squabbling brothers. Oil prices dropped precipitously towards the end of 2014, and the price of Brent crude oil remains stubbornly around the $50 per barrel mark — and in January 2016, the price dipped below $28. For a state that relies on oil to make a living, this is bad news. OPEC’s production cuts have failed to stimulate the rise in oil prices that the House of Saud had hoped for. In the meantime, the vicious campaign in Yemen shows no sign of abating, and with every day that the conflict against Houthi rebels drags on, with every funeral that is bombed, the House of Saud expends its stockpiles of goodwill, and the Saudi national purse grows lighter.
Even before his accession, Mohammad bin Salman was one of the most powerful men in Saudi Arabia, holding portfolios that left him responsible one way or another for virtually all aspects of the administration of Saudi Arabia. As defence minister, he was responsible for the 2015 decision to launch bombing raids against Houthi rebels who had just occupied the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. But just as he was pledging vast quantities of Saudi funds to the war in Yemen, in his capacity as the head of the Council for Economic and Developmental Affairs, he was responsible for a punishing austerity regime at home, slashing the state’s budget and cancelling a quarter of a trillion dollars of government contracts.
MBS, as he is known popularly, cuts a paradoxical figure — he remains at the pinnacle of one of the few absolute monarchies, and has concentrated an unprecedented amount of power in his hand. But at the same time, he appears to be a modernizing force in an otherwise hidebound family. In 2016, he pushed for the powers of Saudi Arabia’s religious police to be restricted, and succeeded, and is media-friendly compared to his limelight-shunning peers, giving his first on-the-record interview to The Economist in January 2016. It was MBS who has pointed Saudi foreign policy towards the US and towards Trump in particular, paying a visit to the White House on March 15, 2017. Back at home, Prince Mohammad established an entertainment authority that has put on pro wrestling events and monster truck rallies. Most shocking to the home audience, though, are his plans to float Saudi Aramco on the stock markets.
Whether or not the newly ennobled Crown Prince’s modernizing regime will be successful, however, is another matter entirely. And it’s a matter that is largely out of Prince Mohammad’s hands. Vision 2030 is the Prince’s attempt to diversify the country’s economy, to wean it off of oil, but black gold is still the biggest creator of wealth for Saudi Arabia, and the oil market remains stagnant. And despite Saudi muscle, they can’t control the actions of their neighbors — regional instability could well scotch any plans for modernization that MBS may have: a few more wars like that being prosecuted in Yemen, and any reforms could be swept off the table. But most importantly, Prince Mohammad faces stiff competition from his brothers, who may feel that their father has snubbed them — they may yet decide that enough is enough, and that they want to take back power from their upstart younger brother. In Saudi Arabia, family matters.