By Madawi al-Rasheed
Oct. 18, 2018
Thanks to the actions of the impetuous Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — from the brutal war in Yemen to picking a fight with Canada to, most recently, the apparent murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi — Saudi Arabia is at risk of becoming a pariah state. The royal court in Riyadh — including King Salman bin Abdulaziz — surely realizes that this situation cannot continue.
If they are smart they will take decisive action. First, King Salman needs to remove Prince Mohammed from his post, admit responsibility for the assassination of Mr. Khashoggi, and face consequences. Later, if Saudi Arabia truly wants to become a respected member of the international community, the government should take steps toward becoming a constitutional monarchy.
The idea that King Salman would replace his son, also known as M.B.S., with a less boisterous and erratic crown prince might appear unrealistic — but it has precedents. If it is the will of the king, dismissing a crown prince is not very difficult or controversial. King Salman already sacked two crown princes when he became king in 2015: his half brother, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, and his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. They were both sidelined by royal decree.
But there is a more useful historical example when we consider M.B.S.: In the 1960s, King Saud bin Abdulaziz became an embarrassment to the royal family as he plundered wealth, plotted to assassinate Arab leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and later waved the flag of anti-imperialism and Arab nationalism.
The kingdom was on the brink of bankruptcy and the United States was alarmed. Several princes led by Talal bin Abdulaziz, the father of Prince Walid bin Talal, went into exile in Beirut and Cairo, from where they demanded a constitutional monarchy.
King Saud became persona non grata in the royal family. Crown Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz, a shrewd strategist, worked with other princes, got a religious decree from the clergy, and forced King Saud to abdicate after besieging his palace with the National Guard.
King Salman and the other moderate figures in the royal family don’t necessarily need to besiege the palace, but they could find a more peaceful way to push M.B.S. out.
There are several eligible candidates to replace the disastrous Prince Mohammed. Prince Ahmad, a brother of King Salman, who has been sidelined for a long time after a short career as deputy minister of interior, may be a good choice. He is a marginal figure and neither powerful nor aggressive. Given the resentment against the iron fist of M.B.S. and his willingness to humiliate senior members of the royal family, Prince Ahmad’s less adversarial style might help Saudi Arabia to re-establish the shattered royal consensus.
Apart from him, the more prominent contenders could be King Salman’s nephews, former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was removed and humiliated over a year ago, and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who ran the Saudi Arabian National Guard before he was detained and released in 2017.
Prince Muhammad bin Nayef has a reputation for ruthlessness and may not be able to amass support from the royalty and the commoners. He was loved by the Western governments for his campaign against Al Qaeda since 2003 and was offered the George Tenet medal by the C.I.A. weeks before he was dismissed as crown prince in 2015. But he also spread fear in society, detaining and torturing activists, and many Saudis suffered as he used the war on terror to silence peaceful dissent.
In contrast, Prince Mutaib’s name is not associated with repression. His power base was among the tribal groups that joined the national guard. He can live off the reputation of his father as the old patron of the kingdom. If he continues the paternalism of his father, he may become a focal symbol for rebuilding trust among his own kin.
Nobody knows for sure what the Saudi royals are thinking, but nobody would challenge King Salman if he replaces his son. Most people patronized by M.B.S. are recent appointees and should not be expected to put up a fight against King Salman.
But it is unclear if the aging King Salman fully understands that damage M.B.S. has done to the kingdom — tarnished its reputation through reckless wars, detentions, torture, and now murder, alienated the broader royal family, shattered its old consensus. Cosmetic measures — women driving, cinemas, theaters — are not enough to usher in a new dawn in the kingdom.
Although a long shot, if King Salman does replace M.B.S., he must transform the absolute Saudi monarchy into a constitutional monarchy with an elected government and parliament, who approve the appointment of future kings and crown princes. That alone will prevent the emergence of a new M.B.S.-like figure who could amass all the power and threaten the interests of the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has had the time and the money to transform itself into a modern state that respects basic human rights and freedoms, but it has avoided that path. In the past, citizens and some royals have sought rudimentary forms of political representation but calls for constitutional monarchy have landed its proponents in prison. There is little hope of change.
King Salman will never voluntarily push for such a change without serious pressure from inside and outside the country. Given the support he has from the West, especially President Trump, most Western governments might be happy to see another acronym emerge as the new face of the kingdom to absorb the global outrage over Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder.
Replacing M.B.S. and moving toward a constitutional monarchy might seem like wishful thinking at the moment, but these two steps might save Saudi Arabia from more serious upheaval and possible implosion from within in the future.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at London School of Economics, is the editor of “Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia.”
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The columnists discuss Jamal Khashoggi’s killing with Tom Friedman, and debate the repercussions of Trump’s foreign policy on global democracies.
Ms. Rasheed is a historian of Saudi Arabia.