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'Only death': How Mohammed bin Salman has torn up the rules of kingship

By insisting that only death would stand in the way of him becoming king, Mohammed bin Salman dropped all pretence about Saudi Arabia's consensual royal family politics

Asked what would stop him from becoming king during an interview on CBS's 60 Minutes show, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman replied "only death".

Such a deterministic and bold reply undermines his rule in many ways.

By invoking death, he sent a strong message to his royal rivals and opponents. Can the large pool of the recently marginalised and humiliated princes interpret this as a warning? Can they conclude that Mohammed bin Salman is here to stay and the only way to get rid of him is to assassinate him?  

By insisting that only death would stand in the way of him becoming king, the crown prince dropped all pretence about so-called consensual royal family politics, thus undermining the one crucial security pillar upon which the Al-Saud had established their rule.

Family intrigues

The fake narrative that, unlike other Gulf ruling families, the Al-Saud were the only ones not to have experienced internal feuds is flawed and historically inaccurate. Yet it persists as a legitimacy tool to be deployed against their rivals. Like all the Gulf monarchies, the Al-Saud had their own share of family intrigues, assassinations and disputes.

Since the mid-19th century, they were entangled in a series of rivalries between cousins, brothers, uncles and nephews. From the marginalisation of state founder Ibn Saud's brothers in the 1930s to the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, no one can claim that this is a royal family nourished on "love thy relatives".

By insisting that only death would stand in the way of him becoming king, the crown prince dropped all pretence about so-called consensual royal family politics

In fact, rivalry, competition over resources, prestige and privileges, not to mention malicious rumours and gossip, have been constant features of intra-family relations. Take the rumour spread by Mohammad bin Salman to justify sacking his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince, by stating that the latter had a "drug problem".

It may be true that the Al-Saud do not generally fear a mass uprising staged by disgruntled Saudis - but whoever happens to be at the top of the clan has to take into account the intrigues of his own kin.

It was well known that a large part of deposed crown prince Bin Nayef's resources at the Ministry of Interior before he was sacked in June was dedicated to spying on his own cousins. The poor guy failed to anticipate the rise of the young Mohammed and found himself jobless, albeit in control of vast wealth.  

The internal game

In fact the young Mohammed went as far as detaining those whom he and his father had never liked, above all the sons of deceased King Abdullah, starting with the commander of the Saudi National Guard, Miteb, who was sacked, detained, then released after paying ransom money. 

Late king Abdullah was an outsider to the core princes who ruled Saudi Arabia as a kingdom of multiple fiefdoms, namely the three senior princes Fahd, Sultan and Salman.

Abdullah's sons were easily humiliated, but Mohammed bin Salman has not yet attempted to touch the sons of Sultan bin Abdulaziz, including the infamous Bandar, ambassador to the US from 1983 to 2005.

Bandar had always been associated with the excesses of the royal family. His name comes up every time the dubious arms deal with Britain, the notorious Al-Yamama, is mentioned, as it was clearly associated with a fraud investigation.

Today Saudi Arabia is in the grip of naked power, with the ruler able to exercise power over people without any regard to their interests

By insisting that only death can remove Mohammed bin Salman from the stage over the coming 50 years or so, the prince sets the rules of the internal game within the Al-Saud household. If anyone seriously contemplates challenging him, he needs to be prepared to assassinate Mohammed bin Salman. The stakes will be too high if blood is to flow in the palace corridors like it did in a previous era.

But by saying that only death would stand in his way of becoming king, the crown prince is in reality not only sending a warning to his own relatives but also undermining another pillar upon which the absolute monarchy had always rested.

Mocking the Bayaa system

He is making a mockery of the Bayaa, the oath of allegiance, that Saudi kings had always insisted on staging the morning after they are appointed king. 

Under Saudi rule, the Islamic Bayaa had become a cliche, a travesty, and a theatrical performance staged for propaganda purposes. Many Muslims interpret the Bayaa as a contract between the ruler and the ruled, according to which the former manages the affairs of the people.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has overseen the arrest of hundreds of people, including senior royals, ministers and tycoons (AFP)
The contract is never understood as meaning a job for life even among the most orthodox Sunni Muslims, who are not known for encouraging dissent or sedition.

How to choose this ruler is a matter of controversy. Some Muslims insist that modern elections are the best way to choose him. They do not accept hereditary rule nor kingship. Mohammed bin Salman has in fact put almost all those who believe in elections as a legitimate way to chose a leader in prison. 

Since last September, his detention campaign has targeted Islamists who truly believe in elections. 

Sunni Muslims, at least those who aspire to be ruled according to the revealed message of God, like the loyalist Saudi Wahhabis whom Mohammed bin Salman has recently muzzled, abhor dissent. He really did not need to put them in prison as they do not challenge his rule.

They are willing to offer him the Bayaa and tolerate an unjust ruler as long as he does not close mosques or allow people to urinate in them, a figure of speech to indicate "leaving them in ruin".

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It is this important and dominant interpretation of allegiance to the ruler that triggered jihadi violence over the last 30 years. The latter refused to accept this narrow interpretation of Bayaa and rebelled against the Saudi kings, although they did not shut down mosques or allow others to urinate in them.

Recently a Saudi commentator dared to complain about the multiple calls to prayer coming from mosques and declared that they frighten children. He complained that there were too many mosques in the cities. He was not sent to prison as often is the case in the kingdom.

These are changing times and Mohammed bin Salman approves of such comments; perhaps he authorised them to prove that he is the champion of so-called moderate Islam.

The illusion of consensus 

According to Saudi royal bureaucracy, the Committee of Allegiance established by King Abdullah should meet and elect a king, who is then given the oath by the 33 royal relatives in the committee. The illusion of consensus is shattered when only death can prevent Mohammed bin Salman from extracting approval for his kingship.

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As crown prince, he should wait for the 33 princes to give him the oath before he is confirmed as king. But frankly, the mask has dropped. He does not seek approval from the princes, the religious scholars, or commoners. You either accept Mohammed bin Salman or find your right place in jail.

Mohammed bin Salman has truly undermined a system of succession that claims to be based on an oath of allegiance, granted to the crown prince by other members of the royal family followed by Saudi commoners. He is certain that he will be king, regardless of the monarchical formalities that his ancestors had clung to.

Today Saudi Arabia is in the grip of naked power, with the ruler able to exercise power over people without any regard to their interests.

- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (R), then Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (C) and then deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arriving for the opening session of the Shura Council in Riyadh on 14 December 2016 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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