MBS: The uncrowned king of Saudi Arabia
After the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in 2015 the star of Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the son of the current ruler King Salman, is on the rise.
Just seven years at the helm of affairs he has solidified his control over the kingdom with the result that he is now widely recognised as the uncrowned king.
Though he became prominent instantly after his father’s reign but he was officially appointed as the crown prince in 2017 and has never looked back. With increased concerns over the nearly 86-year-old King Salman’s health, MBS, 36, is taking charge of all important state matters as well as enjoying adequate royal protocol with the king rarely making public appearances.
It is reported that since the outbreak of Covid-19, King Salman has been residing in Neom, a futuristic development on the Red Sea. His last meeting with a foreign official in Riyadh was in March 2020, when he sat down with then-UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab and his last trip abroad was to Oman to offer his condolences over the death of Sultan Qaboos death January 2020.
Apparently King Salman is quite agreeable in delegating all important matters to MBS otherwise in an absolute monarchy no one can upstage the ruling monarch.
In fact King Salman actively aided MBS to strengthen his hold on power and reposed trust in the young crown prince.
It is widely recognised that MBS enjoys huge support amongst the youth of the country that constitute majority in the kingdom.
This fact was drawn home when a US intelligence report alleged that the crown prince had approved the operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi but a few minutes after the report was released, many Saudis flooded Twitter with the hashtag saying, “We are all Mohammed bin Salman.” Saudi Arabia’s biggest newspapers and television channels did not cover the release of the report, instead showing sports events and other unrelated programming.
It was mentioned in the press that the nation is fortified adding that the Biden administration will soon realise that the complex issues of the region will not find a solution through such methods.
Since becoming the de-facto ruler MBS has sought to position himself as a champion of human rights, even as his international reputation took a hit from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
The crown prince has opened Saudi Arabia to tourists and foreign investments in an effort to diversify the economy of the world’s largest oil exporter economy away from crude.
He has overseen sweeping social changes, including allowing women to drive and work in the public sector, enabling citizens to enjoy the additional income and recreational outlets that opened up across the country.
He even seemed more open than his father towards Israel, allowing its commercial aircraft to fly through Saudi air space.
MBS has clearly benefitted from MBS has clearly benefitted from the king’s longevity as his ongoing presence conveys traditional authority to cover MBS’s youth and unconventional actions while rarely impeding them. Reliable sources confirm that the King is in excellent health, exercising every day but is 86-years-old and is uncomfortable wearing a mask and has a tendency to want to shake hands and warmly greet people so extra caution is taken to keep him safe and away from public meetings.
MBS embarked on a Gulf tour ahead of the OIC summit meeting with heads of Gulf Cooperation Council member states. It is now openly mentioned that any current arrangement with the royal court happens only through the crown prince’s office and the king is no longer in the picture.
The fast emerging fact is that MBS is no longer a king in the making but he is a king in the palace. His path to the throne is clear and has been for some time with no foreseeable obstacles after he drove out one rival after another.
Despite some concern that the international community would not want to deal with MBS, especially after the Khashoggi murder but such fears have dissipated after French president Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia during which it was MBS handing all matters with a beaming smile.
While US President Biden vowed a tougher approach than his predecessor Donald Trump, and has yet to directly communicate with MBS, the administration has made it clear that it is inevitable and it is only a matter of time.
Apparently there is no identifiable source of effective opposition inside or outside the royal family and that MBS has indeed become more prominent and powerful. In this context, however, the impression conveyed is that the state coercion is predominantly the reason to keep matters quite.
Just very recently princess Basma bint Saud Al Saud, 57, a royal family member long seen as a proponent of women’s rights and a constitutional monarchy, who was detained since March 2019, in April 2020 implored King Salman and MBS to release her on health grounds.
She was accordingly released along with her daughter Suhoud. Princess Basmah was arrested shortly before a planned trip to Switzerland for medical treatment but the nature of her illness was never disclosed.
There is hardly any doubt that MBS’ drive for reform took place at the expense of the previous designated heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Nayef. Despite the reforms process Saudi authorities have also cracked down on dissidents and even potential opponents, ranging from preachers to women’s rights activists, even royals.
Accordingly, Princess Basmah was kept in Al-Ha’ir prison, where numerous other political detainees have been held. In written testimony to the United Nations in 2020 her family said her detention was likely due in large part to her record as an outspoken critic of abuses and she was also deemed an ally of Mohammed bin Nayef.
It may be recollected that in November 2017, a vast anti-corruption campaign saw Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel serve for three months as a de facto detention centre for dozens of princes and senior officials suspected of graft or disloyalty. In March 2020, the royal guard arrested King Salman’s brother and nephew, accusing them of fomenting a coup against Prince Mohammed. King Salman’s real brother Ahmed was arrested after he was coaxed to come to the kingdom.
While living abroad he openly criticised King Salman and MBS. The former crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef is also under house arrest alongwith the sons of late King Abdullah, one of them prince Miteb bin Abdullah who was the head of the Saudi National Guard.