Will Khashoggi's Killing Force Mohammed bin Salman to Cede Some Control?

13 MINS READNov 5, 2018 | 11:30 GMT
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 23.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh on Oct. 23. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi could force the crown prince to share some of his power with his royal relatives.

  • Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to be replaced as a result of the fallout over the slaying of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate.
  • Still, the backlash against the crown prince could result in pressure to reduce his consolidation of power, as he has dispensed with the country's custom of reaching decisions by consensus in favor of concentrating power in his hands.
  • As the Saudi kingdom continues to scramble to contain the crisis, other royals could attempt to maneuver behind the scenes.
  • Questions remain about whether the crown prince's grip on power will slowly erode after the crisis ends as other royals try to cultivate their influence and power.

A death in Turkey has set the Saudi royal family scrambling. The apparent murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the resulting international reaction have embroiled Saudi Arabia, forcing the House of Saud to unite to address the backlash. King Salman has sent the powerful governor of Mecca, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, to Turkey to try to defuse tension over the killing, while also summoning the Saudi ambassador to the United States back to Riyadh.

The incident is bound to affect the inner workings of the royal family, particularly as the king's powerful young son and crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, struggles to escape international blame while Riyadh disavows — publicly, at least — that he had any involvement. Beneath the surface, competition and debate in the House of Saud is likely to be heated, because the crown prince has inevitably made enemies in the family while consolidating his power. As the first grandson — and a young one at that — of Saudi Arabia's founder to become an heir apparent, the crown prince has passed dozens of princes in the traditional succession pattern. And once the dust settles on the Khashoggi killing, pressure on the crown prince to share power with the rest of the family will remain, if not increase.

The Big Picture

The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul has elicited more international backlash — much of it directed at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — than Saudi Arabia expected. The incident, along with others, has rattled Riyadh, meaning questions about the crown prince's consolidation of power are bound to emerge inside the House of Saud. While the heir apparent's position might not be in danger, other royals could push for a return to more consensus-based decision-making.

Succession to the Throne

Before King Salman's crowning in 2015, Saudi Arabia was effectively ruled by consensus among the various branches of the royal family, all of whom are descendants of the founding king, Abdulaziz. Competition did occur between factions, yet the king's 36 sons split a great deal of power and authority, effectively establishing little fiefdoms in different parts of the state. For instance, the Sudairi seven, a bloc of full brothers that includes King Salman, have wielded control over the defense and interior ministries. The all-important Saudi Arabian National Guard and Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry, meanwhile, went to then-Prince — and later King — Abdullah and his sons. Beyond the fiefdoms, which allowed princes to amass significant patronage networks, the king rarely made major decisions without consulting the rest of the family. King Abdullah's Allegiance Council perhaps best illustrates this principle. Established in 2007 to manage Saudi successions — and counter the influence of the Sudairi seven — the council gives one vote to every son of King Abdulaziz — or a son of theirs if the father has died or become otherwise incapacitated — apart from the two who did not have a male heir before dying. The council, however, failed to dilute the Sudairi seven's power, because King Salman ultimately became the reigning monarch, later appointing a succession of grandsons from the faction to the position of crown prince.

Since grabbing a large degree of power, Mohammed bin Salman has sought to overhaul this system in two key ways. First, he has attempted to reorganize Saudi Arabia's patronage networks so they run through him and his allies exclusively, thereby limiting the ability of any rivals to challenge him by building up their own network of support. He has also worked to blunt other princes' existing patronage networks, including those of King Abdullah's descendants in the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Second, the crown prince has strived to organize the Saudi state's institutions and its decision-making process around him.

The crown prince has removed nearly every major rival from formal employment in the Saudi government, including former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who lost his position as interior minister — one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom — to one of his nephews, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef. Prince Abdulaziz is a not a son or grandson of King Abdulaziz but rather a great-grandson, which makes it impossible for him to challenge Mohammed bin Salman's position as crown prince (what's more, he is believed to be an ally of the current heir apparent). Elsewhere, the crown prince sacked Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who headed the National Guard, replacing him with a prince who is from a cadet branch of the House of Saud that is not part of the ruling faction of King Abdulaziz's descendants; Mutaib's replacement, accordingly, cannot challenge Mohammed bin Salman.

Today, the crown prince sits atop almost every key decision-making body involved in security, intelligence, the economy and, to a certain extent, social affairs.

Today, the crown prince sits atop almost every key decision-making body involved in security, intelligence, the economy and, to a certain extent, social affairs. In many cases, he has also surrounded himself with nonroyals who are loyal to him, instead of princes. For example, Mohammed bin Salman presides over the Council of Political and Security Affairs, which oversees all of the kingdom's political and security policies, but only two other princes sit on the panel: the non-threatening replacements to Mohammed bin Nayef and Mutaib bin Abdullah. The makeup is quite different from the panel's forerunner, the National Security Council, which included eight senior members of the royal family when King Salman abolished it in 2015. On the intelligence front, the crown prince was even put in charge of reforming the intelligence apparatus in response to Khashoggi's killing.

Speculation that the Saudi royal family could alter the current plan of succession appears unfounded given Mohammed bin Salman's entrenchment. Questions remain, however, about whether a system under the sway of the crown prince could ultimately lead to a better distribution of power and wealth in the House of Saud beyond the heir apparent's close supporters, emulating the balance that existed before Salman became king. Such a distribution of power might not necessarily encompass all the lineages of the founder's sons but could emerge around narrower lines of patronage to include Mohammed bin Salman's full cousins or handpicked allies from different lineages.

All the King's Sons

Of King Abdulaziz's 36 sons that survived to adulthood, just nine — including King Salman — are alive today. Most of these now-elderly siblings, however, were either purposely sidelined from the line of succession years ago or prevented from holding key positions that would have groomed them for leadership. Such decisions stem partly from former leaders of the royal family who sought to concentrate power in their support bases, thereby denying younger sons the opportunities that their older brothers enjoyed. As a result of these machinations, there are relatively few powerful counterweights to the current crown prince.

Nevertheless, leading members of the royal family will likely attempt to tackle the powerful crown prince and peel back some of his unilateral authority in the months to come. One possible counterweight, Prince Ahmed, a full brother of King Salman and member of the Sudairi seven, opted for self-imposed exile in London over fears that the crown prince could detain him in a purge, only to return on Oct. 30 after receiving assurances from British authorities that Riyadh would not take him into custody. Prince Ahmed, 75, spent many years in the Saudi government, primarily as the deputy interior minister, although King Abdullah sidelined him from the path of succession. The prince has criticized Mohammed bin Salman's reforms, as well as the crown prince's actions in Yemen, prompting rumors that the heir apparent's opponents are backing Prince Ahmed to some degree. Ultimately, the prince could even emerge as a counterweight to Mohammed bin Salman in the royal family, even if he does not make a direct challenge for the throne himself.

Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of King Abdulaziz at 73, was King Salman's first crown prince before the reigning monarch decided that the next king would be a grandson, and not son, of King Abdulaziz. Muqrin has held numerous positions in government, including the powerful General Intelligence Directorate, over which he presided for seven years. The prince is a former ally of King Abdullah, but his support base has diminished in recent years due to the crown prince's purges.

Beyond Princes Muqrin and Ahmed, the most high-profile sons are Prince Bandar and Prince Talal. Bandar, the oldest surviving son, is 95 and has not held a position in years. Prince Talal is best known as the leader of the Free Princes Movement in the 1960s, which promoted liberal ideals and a constitution, although he has also expressed strident criticism of the country's changes over the past decade. Talal has not held a formal position since the 1960s, but he has become a wealthy businessmen — as have many of his sons, including Saudi Arabia's wealthiest man, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. King Abdulaziz's other surviving sons are Mutaib, Abdulillah, Mamdouh and Mashhur.

A New Generation Grapples for Power

Much like King Abdulaziz's younger sons, many of the first Saudi king's grandsons have had few opportunities in government. The majority of the grandsons of King Abdulaziz's first children, such as King Saud, King Faisal and King Khaled, did not receive the opportunities that even many of their half-cousins further down the family line have enjoyed. During these grandsons' prime, their uncles retained many elite positions. When these uncles were finally removed, the new ruling elite — King Fahd, King Abdullah, King Salman and others — emphasized their sons for high-power positions. Thus the grandsons of the middle generation of King Abdulaziz's sons have become the most prominent and powerful.

The Allegiance Council has lost power since Salman ascended to the throne, but many of the less influential branches of the family do advise the king and provide some input on succession. Despite a lack of prominence now, some of these princes could emerge as allies of a faction to counter Mohammed bin Salman or (less likely) a new emergent challenger. Alternatively, they might just become pawns of the crown prince.

Although Mohammed bin Salman has sidelined his cousins who present the biggest threat, namely, his predecessor as crown prince and the former head of the National Guard, both could return to prominence in some fashion, albeit through proxies.

Although Mohammed bin Salman has sidelined his cousins who present the biggest threat, namely, his predecessor as crown prince, as well as the former head of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, both could return to prominence in some fashion, albeit through proxies. In a system where Mohammed bin Salman remains crown prince, the two are unlikely to come to the fore in any new consensus system, but they could exercise power through others who represent their faction of the family. After all, many of Muhammad bin Nayef's cousins, brothers and nephews retain powerful positions. Prince Saud bin Nayef, the governor of oil rich Eastern Province, is the elder of the branch and remains on the Allegiance Council, while his son, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, replaced Mohammed bin Nayef as interior minister.

King Abdullah's sons, meanwhile, have largely lost their positions of influence since their patriarch's death due to his battles with the Sudairi seven. Beyond Prince Mutaib, other former power players include Prince Mashaal bin Abdullah, a longtime governor of Mecca and Najran; Prince Khaled bin Abdullah, a former commander in the National Guard and the former governor of Riyadh, as well as Prince Turki bin Abdullah, who was detained in the crown prince's purge in November 2017. The Abdullah branch of the family possesses strong links to Saudi Arabia's rural tribes, meaning they still have allies — even if the crown prince has purged many of them from the National Guard since Prince Mutaib's removal.

And while small in number, some prominent grandsons from elsewhere in the family have succeeded in maintaining a degree of power. One of the most prominent ones is Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the current governor of Mecca, whom King Salman selected to go to Turkey to ease concerns over Khashoggi's death. His outspoken brother, Prince Turki al-Faisal, is the former head of intelligence and an ambassador who remains prominent even though he has not held a government position for more than a decade. Prince Turki was also close to Khashoggi, whom he mentored. Prince Faisal bin Bandar, a son of King Abdulaziz's eldest living son, Prince Bandar, is the governor of Riyadh as well.

Many of the princes have struggled to gain formal positions, although they have become prominent in Saudi Arabia's business community, earning them a great deal of economic clout. The crown prince has inevitably taken aim at such figures in his ostensible corruption purges, both because he wants to gain access to their business entities and because he wants to keep the purse strings closer to home. Many of these figures support social liberalization, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who was detained in November 2017 and was reportedly forced to part with billions of dollars in shares in his business empire, Kingdom Holding Co., in exchange for his freedom. Another is Abdulaziz bin Fahd, who controlled half of MBC Group, the Middle East's largest private media company, before his own detention.

Mohammed bin Salman has naturally sought to empower his brothers and allies, notably appointing Prince Khaled bin Salman last year as Saudi ambassador to the United States — a prominent diplomatic post whose occupants typically go on to bigger and better things in the government. Two of Mohammed's older brothers, Faisal and Abdulaziz, also control key positions as minister of state for energy and governor of Medina, respectively. Other figures who could back the crown prince are Prince Abdulaziz bin Saad, a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder, and Prince Faisal bin Khaled bin Sultan, a great-grandson of the founder, who became governors in 2017.

He does not yet sit on the throne, but Mohammed bin Salman has now acquired a level of power that few in Saudi Arabia have ever wielded. Global revulsion at Khashoggi's murder in Istanbul has shone a light on the royal family, but speculation that the fallout will lead to the crown prince's removal are unfounded. Even if Mohammed bin Salman's detractors within the family wished to unseat him, the crown prince now enjoys too much power for any internal coup to succeed — but that doesn't mean the kingdom's heir apparent won't have to share some of the power over Saudi Arabia's future course with his relatives.

An outline of the family tree of Saudi Arabia's royals.
A list of the members of Saudi Arabia's Allegiance Council.
A chart depicting some of the top positions held by Saudi Arabia's most prominent royals.

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