What happens in the Saudi royal family doesn't necessarily stay within the royal family. Three stories in major U.S. news outlets — The New York Times, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal — emerged in quick succession over the past 24 hours, all focused on the politics of the Saudi Arabian royal family. While full of sensational details, each report relied on Saudi sources that tell roughly the same story of what transpired one dramatic night in June when King Salman deposed nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, placing son Mohammed bin Salman next in line to the throne
. The factual similarities across the reports suggest they are true, and the timing of their release indicates that some royal family members and government leaders in Riyadh intended for the details to be widely known. It is highly unusual for the Saudi royal family to air dirty laundry — let alone in such a coordinated fashion. The quick succession of richly detailed play-by-play reports of the dethroning of the crown prince underlines the strength of new Crown Prince bin Salman. And there is some trepidation in Riyadh over his impending rule. But thanks to the latest reports, we can now see a bit further down the path facing the new crown prince, who is likely to become king much sooner than anyone thought.
It is clear from the reports that bin Nayef did not want to — and was not expecting to — have to give up his post. The succession jump was calculated and plotted by bin Salman himself and may have been in the works for some time. Hints of discord between the former and new crown princes became clear as far back as 2012, when a young bin Salman began assuming leadership roles in the Saudi government. But bin Nayef understandably did not expect the rules of succession to switch so suddenly; nor did he expect his place in line to be removed so unceremoniously. The new information depicts bin Nayef as weak and contained, but the leaked reports could be designed to portray him as such.
Moreover, the accounts point to the heavy-handedness of bin Salman, as well as the assuredness with which he is taking power. These aspects of his personality and leadership style became clear during his past two years as defense minister, deputy crown prince and chairman of multiple influential economic councils
. Bin Nayef's removal also points to the shielding bin Salman can expect to get from his father the king as he settles into his new, more powerful role. And the king is not alone in his strong support for the new crown prince. Only three princes on the 34-member allegiance council voted against the motion to remove bin Nayef from the succession path and to replace him with bin Salman. Critically, however, this doesn't mean that all those who voted in favor of the new crown prince fully trust him yet. To go against the king's wishes in Saudi Arabia is something of a fool's errand. The swiftness with which the succession changes were made might have weakened the ground ahead for bin Salman, who has the important procedural backing from the council but lacks genuine trust and support.
The fates of the three who voted no — a former interior minister, a former governor of Riyadh and a former close family member of the late King Abdullah — bear watching because their loyalty to bin Salman is likely to be questioned. While the Saudi court has denied and will likely continue to deny it, bin Nayef is reportedly under tight control and confined to particular areas within the royal palaces — a report corroborated by new details circulating Wednesday. Any confinement of a former crown prince indicates anxiety over a potential countercoup. Though such a countercoup is highly unlikely based on how the inner machinery of the kingdom works, the new crown prince and the king are likely working to keep any hint of dissent over the succession changes at bay. Keeping an influential leader such as bin Nayef under palace arrest is only done out of fear of his enduring popularity.
Also key in the reporting is news that the United States was informed of the succession changes a week before they occurred, through a relatively unknown royal envoy named Turki al Sheikh. The Saudi royal court has denied that the contact with Washington occurred. But the closeness between the young crown prince, King Salman and President Donald Trump's administration (particularly between bin Salman and Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner) lend credence to the possibility that the United States was well-informed ahead of time. While some in Washington are worried about such a young leader taking the reins of the powerful Saudi Arabia in short order, the Trump administration has placed a lot of faith in Saudi Arabia's ability to cajole other Middle Eastern nations into pursuing counterterrorism initiatives, one of the administration's top goals in the region. Some of this trust is evident in how quickly the Qatar crisis unraveled. Spurred in part by a misplaced faith
in unconditional U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's leaders, bin Salman pushed an aggressive isolation campaign against Qatar in the name of counterterrorism. Bin Nayef might have been able to deheat the campaign because he was known to be a more moderate voice against Qatar.
Perhaps most critical of all the details revealed from these leaks is a claim by Reuters that the king has already recorded a message giving power to his son, which could be made public in the coming months. If the king abdicates within months, the kingdom faces a watershed moment. With decades of life before him and nothing close to a successor yet, bin Salman could have upward of a half-century to shape the kingdom and its relations with the world. By speeding up the transfer of the crown, King Salman can insulate the young crown prince from dissent while he is still alive.
Based on his track record so far, the bin Salman era will be made up of swift and controversial reform. Bin Salman is already facing a number of challenges, not least of which is pushing the kingdom through aggressive economic diversification
amid a structural decline in oil prices. Then there is the prospect of containing Sunni jihadist activity
and Shiite militancy
in the kingdom, and of meeting the social demands of a burgeoning youth population that has yet to fully put their trust in the new crown prince. He will have the insulation of his father's presence for a time, but eventually bin Salman will be on his own in a new and difficult period for the kingdom.