The home struggle erupted when King Abdullah, during his trip to Egypt for EU-Arab League summit, was warned about a possible coup by his advisors. The king’s circle of insiders, worried about the possible power grab attempt, replaced the old security team of the monarch with a new 30-member one, picked from the ministry of interior.
Salman’s shift of approach towards his son has triggered many speculations about their relations. While some sides call it a new political game by the crown prince, others suggest that power struggle between the father and the son is real, displaying differences inside the house of Saud.
First scenario: The dispute is real
Those raising the idea believe that bin Salman since seizing the post of crown prince from his cousin Mohammad bin Nayef in June 2017 has been involved in many controversial actions. They add that as the time goes by, divisions inside the ruling family deteriorate. Division between the son and the father went public when Prince Mohammed declined to be among those welcoming the king returning from Egypt trip. In the absence of the father, Mohammed took two important measures. First, appointing first Saudi female ambassador in the US and second appointing his brother Khalid bin Salman as the deputy defense minister.
The Guardian newspaper has reported that the king was not aware of the appointments. He was informed by his advisors who heard the news in media. Khalid’s appointment reportedly drew King Salman anger as the monarch already argued that it was too early for his younger son to assume such a significant post.
The conflict of views between the son and the father is not limited to this case. While the king supports a solution to the Yemen war, the crown prince presses with the devastating campaign. Prince Mohammed also backs anti-government protests in Algeria just against his father’s views. The two also are at odds over the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. While the son supports Trump’s “the deal of the century” which is expected to ignore the Palestinian rights, the father says he advocates the official Palestinian stances against the occupation. In August last year, King Salman blocked public listing of the national oil giant Aramco. The listing intention was announced by bin Salman in 2016 as part of a roadmap to cut reliance on oil known as Saudi Vision 2030.
Yet another case widening the gap between the two is the killing of Prince Mohammed’s critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul by a hit squad apparently sent by the king’s son. The Guardian has reported that following a CIA probe about if the crown prince ordered the killing, their rift upgraded to a new level.
Supporters of the first scenario suggest that the prince’s behavior has set off the alarm bells to King Salman who is trying to curb further destabilizing actions by the heir to the throne.
Second scenario: The rift is a sham
The holders of this view argue that the king is heavily ill and thus is far from having control over the country. The real ruler in Saudi Arabia is Prince Mohammed and he has launched a new game to paint legitimate possible abdication by his father and his succession. The message is intended for the foreign sides to tell them that the king is healthy and he transfers the power with his free will. Mujtahid, a Saudi whistleblower on Twitter, has recently claimed that King Salman has no hand in the state’s decisions as he lacks mental health. “He forgets what he says after five minutes,” Mujtahid tweeted.
Ray al-Youm, a London-based Arabic language newspaper addressed the whistleblower’s revelation. It said that bin Salman is the ruler of Saudi Arabia due to his father’s illness that makes him absent from the home and foreign policy decision making. This is understood by any political leader traveling to the kingdom. “The diplomatic meetings with the king are limited to a coffee and a picture with him,” the daily reported. It continued that it is not ordinary for the crown prince to take a decision without the king’s agreement. Even in secondary issues, the action is deemed a coup against the monarch. “If King Salman was healthy, he would not have allowed such a violation and immediately sacked the crown prince,” Ray al-Youm added.
For the advocates of the second scenario, the appointment of Khalid as deputy defense minister means paving the ground for Mohammed to ascend to the throne. They note that picking first women ambassador is meant to placate the global pressures on the de facto ruler who is accused of ignoring the women’s rights and wants to attract the advocacy of the Americans when the time comes for power transfer.
Third scenario: Some anti-Mohammed figures penetrated the king’s circle
Despite the fact that bin Salman is not afraid to play a sham game of rifts with his father to evade the pessimism and accusations and the king is genuinely ill and mentally weak, his opponents in the ruling orbit are not few. The ruling class in the oil-wealthy monarchy is the most important political influencers. So far, they attempted two coups, one against King Saud and the other against King Faisal.
Some Wahhabi clerics are among Mohammed's opponents. Their opposition to him even increased recently after he climbed on the top of Holy Mocca’s Kaaba.
Following Khashoggi murder, Washington Post reported that a political circle led by Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Mohammed’s uncle, has came to existence. The French Le Figaro magazine has also pointed to indecision in the Allegiance Council about approving Mohammed succession.
The Western media reports indicate that despite the crackdown on opponents, bin Salman has failed to silence opposition. There are still influencers that can persuade the king against his son. The third scenario’s essence is that the king is leading some opposition against the crown prince but they are not initiated by the king himself as he is not in full control of the state’s affairs. While bin Salman uses his father’s inability to solidify power, his rivals use the same weakness and the anti-Mohammed global atmosphere to check his power gain. After all, they know that the crown prince’s legitimacy is reliant on the king’s decrees.