ANALYSIS: Is leadership change imminent in Saudi Arabia?
The heavy toll of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder on Saudi Arabia’s global image may have unprecedented repercussions for leadership: the replacement of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
According to a recent report by French outlet Le Figaro, the Saudi royal family is considering replacing MBS, as he is also known, to defuse the deepening crisis that the kingdom’s reputation has suffered since the disappearance and murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“For several days, the ruling Saudi family’s allegiance council has been meeting in the utmost secrecy, a diplomatic source has told Le Figaro,” began the French newspaper’s bombshell report.
Le Figaro, citing another “credible Saudi source” who confirmed news of MBS’s possible replacement as crown prince, said that it was highly probable that the 33-year-old crown prince would not survive the Khashoggi crisis.
Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident from Saudi Arabia, was a leading journalist and vocal critic of the Saudi regime. The 60-year-old entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to do paperwork for a planned wedding with his Turkish fiancée.
Khashoggi has not been seen since, and reports have indicated a 15-member hit team flew into Istanbul from Riyadh to murder and dispose of the journalist while he was inside the Saudi consulate.
Le Figaro’s diplomatic sources said that the Saudi Allegiance Council, the body in charge of inheritance-related matters, is set to name Prince Khalid bin Salman, MBS’s younger and “more predictable” brother, as a replacement for the now unpopular crown prince.
Khalid, who at 28 is the Saudi ambassador to the US, is said to be cut from the same cloth as his brother MBS in the latter’s early days: elegant, charismatic, dynamic, and appealing to the West.
Saudi Arabia hopes that Prince Khalid’s popularity at home and in the West will help defuse the sprawling reputation crisis that the House of Sauds has found itself in since Khashoggi disappeared.
Saudi Arabia recalled the young ambassador last week to attend, alongside his father King Salman and brother MBS, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s impromptu high-profile visit to discuss Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The recalling of Prince Khalid to Riyadh was not a simple diplomatic reassessment of the Saudi approach to the US. And the fact that Saudi Arabia is set to replace Ambassador Khalid, who they said would not be returning to Washington, has further crystallized the belief among Saudi Arabia observers that Riyadh is “actively seeking” replacement for MBS.
Taking back control
MBS, whom the Allegiance Council uncustomarily appointed as crown prince over his cousin and the most senior candidate Mohammed bin Nayef, has benefited from his father’s stamp to take the reins of the kingdom’s most crucial matters.
At 82, King Salman left crucial decisions to his 33-year-old son, green-lighting almost all of his moves and only briefly interfering when necessary.
When Saudi Arabia’s Western partners threatened the kingdom with economic sanctions and a boycott over allegations MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder, MBS and his aides initially answered with swift and even more pronounced threats. They promised “greater action” in response to any hostile move towards Saudi Arabia.
But the tone has changed of late, and sources at the Saudi royal palace have said that King Salman wants to grab the headlines and assert himself as the kingdom’s chief decision maker.
Although MBS remains King Salman’s favorite son, the Saudi monarch felt mounting pressure to intervene and limit the damage that his increasingly criticized and now ostracized son has caused the kingdom’s reputation, well-connected Saudi businessmen and officials told Reuters.
“The king is now holding the file personally … and the tone is very different,” a Saudi businessman said.
Another source in the inner circle of the Saudi royal dealings, explained that the monarch’s advisors have “grown frustrated” over MBS’ use of unchecked power. “The people around [King Salman] are starting to tell him to wake up to what’s happening,” the source said.
Meanwhile, Turkish media outlets keep leaking materials that appear to criminalize MBS, holding the crown prince personally responsible for ordering the murder of the dissident journalist.