Some memorable terrorist attacks took place in Saudi Arabia on July 4. Suicide bombers set off explosions at mosques in Qatif, Jeddah, and Medina, the second holiest site in Islam. The bombing in Medina was particularly painful for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Islamic State terrorists who are suspected in the attacks were able to use this blast as proof that the royal family is unable to ensure the security of the Hajj or maintain order at holy sites.
The explosion in Medina cast doubt upon the Saudi king’s credentials as the «Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques» (Khadim Al-Haramain), a title held by the monarchs of Saudi Arabia since 1986. This was effectively the first truly dangerous terrorist attack on these two sacred Muslim cities since the 1979 capture of the Great Mosque (Masjid al-Ḥarām) in Mecca by a group of extremists led by Juhayman al-Otaybi.
Commentators are drawing some distressing conclusions after the July 4 attacks. First of all, the Saudi security services demonstrated that they are incapable of preventing such acts of terror. This not only calls into question the king’s merits as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, but also undermines the credibility of the reform program announced in early May by Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Of course, expanding Islamic tourism and increasing the number of pilgrims who come to make the Hajj is one of the strategies of the Saudi Vision 2030 program for boosting the productivity of the Saudi economy. The Saudi kingdom’s inability to ensure the safety of foreigners (446 Iranians died last year after unfortunate accidents in Mecca) could spell doom for those initiatives. Second, the attacks revealed the presence of Islamic State sleeper cells within Saudi Arabia. It turns out that the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia comes not from Yemeni Houthis or even from Iran, but from internal enemies. Thus the statement by «Caliph» Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi about the need to liberate holy sites from the hands of the House of Saud is no empty threat. Third, the Saudi policy of using radical Islamists (takfiris) to meddle in the internal affairs of other Arab states has now come back to bite them. Fourth, the existence of a terrorist underground is evidence that one segment of the population (especially youth) is deeply dissatisfied with the current Saudi political system. Far-reaching reforms are needed in order to root out the underlying causes of terrorist activity.
The issue of reforms in Saudi Arabia is inextricably linked to the line of succession. The kingdom is currently ruled by Salman bin Abdulaziz and the official heir to the throne is Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, while next in line is the energetic 30-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Some analysts have described last year’s reshuffling of the heirs to the throne as a «bloodless coup». Breaking with tradition, the son of the founder of the Saudi kingdom, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, was excluded from the line of succession, thus skipping over the dynasty’s third generation. On one hand, this suggests King Salman’s intention to eliminate the current gerontocracy, while on the other hand, it could sow dissent within the royal family.
The real suspense in the Saudi kingdom is now over the question of who will follow 80-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz to the throne. Many believe that this will be the second in line, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is already the de facto head of state. This theory seems even more credible after the prince’s recent two-week tour of the United States. On June 17 the US president hosted Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, speaking with him for an hour and a half and observing all the rules of formal protocol. Prior to that, he held talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US intelligence directors and conducted numerous meetings in the US Senate and House of Representatives. Some observers saw this as a thumbs-up from Washington on the idea of the elderly King Salman – who suffers from Alzheimer’s – being replaced by his 30-year-old son.
At the same time, according to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, high-ranking US politicians have not yet reached a consensus about the son of King Salman. Some believe that the young and energetic prince could become a useful partner for Washington on the international stage, while others bemoan his unpredictability, pointing out, in particular, the way he plunged his country into war with Yemen in March 2015. Operation Decisive Storm was hopeless from a military standpoint and unable to eliminate the Houthis and supporters of former President Saleh, plus Saudi Arabia’s international image was deeply tarnished when that country took the lead in bombing the poorest nation in the Arab world. That operation is unlikely to give the Saudis control over Yemen, but could well lead to the disintegration of that country, which would not bring Riyadh any big political dividends.
And there is one other issue that also worries Riyadh’s American partners. Prince Salman is not a man of the West. Unlike some other members of the royal family, he was never educated abroad or assimilated into the upper crust of Western society. For example, the late Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, was a graduate of Princeton, while his brother, former head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal, got his diploma from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Mohammed bin Salman’s two half-brothers also studied at foreign universities – Princes Sultan and Faisal are alumni of the University of Denver and Oxford University, respectively. Mohammed bin Salman received his higher education in Saudi Arabia. He is fluent in English, but prefers to express himself in Arabic. So he remains very much a foreigner in American eyes. But the relationship with Saudi Arabia is still extremely important for Washington.
However, it’s too early to simply write off the interior minister, 56-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the official heir to the throne. Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi scholar currently living in London, believes that Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of the Saudi Council for Political and Security Affairs, personifies the «deep state» (a state within a state) – unifying the security service and fine-tuning the complex relationship between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics. In the struggle for power, Mohammed bin Nayef, with close ties to the CIA and the FBI, could prove to be even stronger than Mohammed bin Salman.
It should be noted that Prince Mohammed bin Salman views Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed – the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces – as his mentor, a man who enjoys a reputation as a modernizer among the Gulf monarchs. According to the WikiLeaks website, former US ambassador to the UAE Richard Olsen reported in 2009: «The leadership in Abu Dhabi never misses an opportunity to let visiting senior USG officials know that they regard the Kingdom as run by cantankerous old men surrounded by advisors who believe the earth is flat».
According to the website Middle East Eye, Mohammed bin Zayed, who is advising Mohammed bin Salman, has suggested a strategy that the Saudi prince could use to get Washington to green-light his succession by the end of this year. A two-pronged approach was proposed. First, Mohammed bin Salman must «end the rule of Wahhabism» in Saudi Arabia. The first step in this direction has already been taken. Recently, King Salman, with unmistakable input from his son, issued a decree prohibiting the religious police from making arrests. That needs to be followed by the arrests of radical Islamists, including some clerics, and the disbanding of the influential Council of Senior Scholars. If this is actually carried out, then Mohammed bin Salman will have put an end to the pact of cooperation between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics. But that is easier said than done. Second, the UAE sheikhs believe that Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Israel. Last year saw a rapid growth in secret Saudi-Israeli contacts.
Meanwhile, of course, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is one negative factor that undermines the stability of the Middle East. And in recent years Riyadh has increasingly taken the initiative in fueling the conflict. The latest example was seen in Prince Turki al-Faisal’s speech at a conference held by an Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), in Paris on July 12. In 1981 this group took a stand against the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. It was responsible for a string of terrorist attacks in Iran in 1981-1982, and established a mini-army in Iraq after going into exile, which fought for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq conflict. In Iran, MEK supporters have gained a reputation as traitors. Speaking at the gathering of the «Mujahedin», Prince Turki al-Faisal called for nothing less than an armed overthrow of the current Iranian regime. And of course this entreaty came from the lips of a man who for many years was the intelligence chief for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Hence, the procedure for passing the Saudi throne from the king to his heir may become further complicated by this latest flare-up in the Iranian-Saudi conflict.