REVEALED: The UAE-backed plan to make young Saudi prince a king
Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince is being advised by the UAE on how he can win backing from the United States and become king by the end of 2016, Middle East Eye can reveal.
Two well-placed Saudi sources told MEE on condition of anonymity that Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is advising Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on a two-pronged approach to become the United States’ preferred choice as the next ruler of Saudi Arabia.
The first Saudi source said Bin Zayed has told Bin Salman that to be accepted by the Americans he must “end the rule of Wahhabism” - a reference to the ultra-conservative brand of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.
Bin Zayed, the de factor ruler of the UAE, has also told Bin Salman that he must open a “strong channel of communication” with Israel if he is to be Washington’s preferred candidate to be king.
The second Saudi source said Bin Salman is eager to win the support of Washington as he has recently told close associates “he will complete the mission of becoming king before the end of the year”.
Bin Salman is 30 years old and has risen swiftly in prominence and power since his appointment to his position early in 2015.
He is second in line to the throne, his country's defence minister, and also heads the royal court of his rival and first in line to the throne, crown prince and interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.
While Bin Salman's reign has so far been blighted by the war in neighbouring Yemen, the prince has increasingly become the international face of Saudi Arabia through his launching of Vision 2030 - a plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from reliance on oil revenues.
Interviews with the Economist and Bloomberg have won him much praise among those who want Saudi Arabia to change not only economically but also socially, and on the advice of the UAE's Bin Zayed, the Saudi deputy crown prince will seek to fundamentally change the role of religion in the kingdom.
“He [Bin Salman] has started a plan to cancel religious police gradually and to arrest the most influential Islamists,” one of two well-placed Saudi sources told MEE.
“He will also cancel the Council of Senior Scholars [Saudi’s highest religious body] and stop all Islamic activities that serve Wahhabism.”
These actions, if successful, would be used to win support in Washington, where many are currently believed to favour the experience of long-time ally Bin Nayef.
Religious reforms would be "hailed as a great action by a well-orchestrated plan by public relations companies in the United States”, the source said.
“The aim will be for him [Bin Salman] to be hailed as a hero by the press, Congress, and academia, so that the [US] administration is forced to follow.”
Analysts of Saudi Arabia told MEE that nullifying the role of the religious establishment would be a difficult task for the young prince.
“Bin Salman may well be the man to bring to an end this 60-year governing pact that was started by King Faisal,” said Christopher Davidson, author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.
“But it will be far easier said than done.”
The Council of Senior Scholars was officially established in 1972 by Faisal, and since then it has wielded significant political power. It is responsible for issuing a religious ruling declaring each new ruler as legitimate.
However, there have already been moves to weaken the power of the religious establishment. In April this year religious police were stripped of their ability to arrest people and were told to enforce Islamic values “kindly and gently”.
Andrew Hammond, former Reuters bureau chief in Riyadh, told MEE that while “state Wahhabism” could be “bought off” there could be repercussions in wider society.
“It’s those who disagree, the independent scholars - that’s the issue,” he said. “If you make war on them so openly as an institution what legitimacy do you have?
“There’s no vote, he [Bin Salman] is young and new to power. It seems a rash move that could have the destabilising effect of religious backlash unless it came as part of a wider effort to re-calibrate regime legitimacy through a real parliament.
“And I really don’t think that’s what he has in mind.”
The second strategy advised by Bin Zayed to win favour in Washington was less surprising to the analysts - that of developing close communication with Israel.
Riyadh and Tel Aviv were reported last year as having effectively worked together - despite officially having no diplomatic ties - to try to stop the US agreeing a nuclear deal with Iran.
Representatives of the two countries have shared public platforms, such as at the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2015, when retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki spoke alongside Israeli official Dore Gold.
Saudi-Israeli relations are a sensitive topic due to overwhelmingly sympathetic public opinion in the kingdom on the Palestinian cause for statehood.
The sensitivity of Israeli relations for Arab states has also been an issue for Bin Zayed.
While UAE-Israel ties have grown close in recent years, the relationship has largely remained secret. As revealed in MEE, however, there have been covert flights between the two nations, and significant trade in the areas of security and agriculture.
It is the perceived positive impact of Israeli relations in Washington that makes it worth the risk for Gulf leaders, including Bin Zayed and Bin Salman, according to Davidson.
“Traditionally, Arab clients of the United States have often tried to curry favour with the Americans by being seen to at least cosy up to the state that they feel is America’s number one friend in the region – Israel,” Davidson said.
One of the Saudi sources said Washington could be swayed into supporting Bin Salman's bid to be king if he could achieve good communication with Israel, even if the Americans like Bin Nayef.
Bin Nayef may be first in line to throne but his quietness - and Bin Salman’s prominence - has led many to conclude the experienced 56-year-old's power is waning.
During Bin Salman’s recent visit to the US, where he met President Barack Obama and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, a report emerged quoting American intelligence officers claiming Bin Nayef may be near death.
MEE understands that Bin Nayef is in good health, and Hammond said the reports bore the hallmark of being part of a plan to promote Bin Salman as the better option.
“There definitely appears to be a concerted effort to not only make Mohammed bin Salman look like the man of the moment and the only choice as national and family saviour, but to make Mohammed bin Nayef look jaded, out of it, over,” he said.
Bin Nayef’s close relationship with Washington is borne out of his long experience in counter-terrorism operations, which led to him being viewed as a reliable partner.
He is credited with curtailing an al-Qaeda campaign of bombings and shootings in the kingdom between 2003 and 2005.
Bin Nayef’s experience in counter-terrorism as interior minister means he has valuable and deep-rooted allies in Saudi Arabia’s security and military establishments.
The Washington Post this week described the links between Bin Zayed and Bin Salman as a “mentor” relationship.
Bin Nayef, on the other hand, is known to harbour deep disdain for the Abu Dhabi crown prince because of a 2003 diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in which Bin Zayed effectively called Bin Nayef’s father an ape and that “Darwin was right”.
The struggle to be the next Saudi king is highly significant, not least because the current monarch, 80-year-old King Salman, is reportedly in poor health. The next ruler would also be the first king who is not a son of the country’s founder, Abdulaziz al-Saud.
The Saudi source with close connections to Bin Salman said there are many rumours in Riyadh that “between now and December action will be taken to install the deputy crown prince as king”.
Bin Salman’s economic vision of selling state assets and bringing in multinational companies is aimed at impressing an international audience, but according to Hammond, it is little more than window-dressing.
“It would just transform paternalism into a form of neo-liberalism that gives the ruling family more time to go on pilfering the state, monopolising power and working out how to stop ordinary people having any say in how their country - if we can even call it that - is run,” he said.
Davidson said that it is too early to be counting Bin Nayef out of contention.
“Mohammed bin Nayef’s allies in the security and armed forces are powerful and they are still very loyal to him,” he said. “I also believe he has a working relationship with the Council of Senior Religious Scholars. I certainly don’t discount the Crown Prince.”
Either would face the task of overcoming an unprecedented set of economic and political pressures on the kingdom. Oil prices have plummeted, causing a large government budget deficit, and Saudi Arabia is again suffering a campaign of attacks – this time from militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.