The new Saudi power triangle

While King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Crown Prince Muqrin and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef are the official positions of power in Saudi Arabia, the real power triangle consists of third-generation princes Mohammed bin Salman, Mutib bin Abdullah and Mohammed bin Nayef.

al-monitor Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz looks on during a meeting with China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 13, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Lintao Zhang.

Topics covered

saudi arabia, prince mutib, prince muqrin, prince mohammed bin salman, prince mohammed bin nayef, king salman, king abdullah, arms

Jan 27, 2015

The allegiance ceremony for the trio in the new Saudi rule (King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, Crown Prince Muqrin and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef) reflected the new Saudi power balance and a victory for the Sudairi wing of the ruling family of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Despite the speed and the decisiveness to impose the Sudairi victory, the new Saudi power balance still needs careful examination on the basis of the actual power trio, which can be different than the official power trio.

The official power trio is made up of King Salman, Crown Prince Muqrin and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. However, the actual power trio is made up of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prince Mutib bin Abdullah. Those three control Saudi Arabia’s three military arms, which control the import and possession of weapons in the kingdom. The three arms are the Department of Defense (bin Salman), the Ministry of Interior (bin Nayef) and the National Guard (bin Abdullah). This fact is very important in the calculations of the real force. There has been a lot of talk in the past two days about Mutib losing his bid to become king. This is true, because his rival Mohammed bin Nayef was appointed as deputy crown prince. However, Mutib still holds the National Guard, which puts him in the actual power triangle despite losing his royal ambition, at least for now.

On the other hand, amid the talk of the victory of Mohammed bin Nayef, the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as minister of defense, which has traditionally been the preserve of the crown prince, augurs a power struggle. This is because Mohammed bin Salman, by virtue of his posts, will be part of the actual power triangle even with the appointment of Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince. King Salman’s age (80) and the limited authority of Prince Muqrin, 70, within the ruling family, because of his lack of influential tribal roots, suggest that the king and the crown prince in fact embody a transitional stage.

Mohammed bin Salman

Via the appointments announced by King Salman, the king’s son Prince Mohammed bin Salman was made defense minister, becoming the youngest minister of defense in the world at 34 years of age. Mohammed bin Salman holds a very important portfolio as it concludes arms deals worth tens of billions of dollars and has direct links to the US military-industrial complex and major arms companies in the West. The new king’s son not only took the defense portfolio but also the presidency of the Royal Court, after Khalid al-Tuwaijri was dismissed. In practice, this means that the king’s son is effectively the first chancellor.

The late King Abdullah issued a royal decree in 2013 appointing Mohammed bin Salman as president of the crown prince’s court. Then another royal decree appointed him as minister of state and Cabinet member. This came in addition to his work as head of the crown prince’s court, in what appeared to be a consolation prize for Mohammed bin Salman in exchange for other changes and appointments that the late king used to pave the way for his son Mutib.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has a bachelor’s degree in management from King Abdulaziz University in Riyadh. He hails from influential tribal roots. He is a Sudairi like his father, the current king, and his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. His mother is Princess Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan and the granddaughter of Rakan bin Hithalayn, the chief of the al-Ajman tribe. This ensures the prince tribal support by way of his mother. The coming months will show whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is effective in managing the important files and the relationship with the other two sides of the power triangle — Mutib and Mohammed bin Nayef.

Mutib bin Abdullah

Prince Mutib bin Abdullah is the biggest loser in the new king’s decisions, which made Mohammed bin Nayef his main rival and removed the Royal Court Chief Khaled al-Tuwaijri, a close associate of the late King Abdullah. The late king’s policies were an attempt to reduce Sudairi influence in the Saudi government.

The road was difficult for the 61-year-old Prince Mutib. His father, despite being a king in the absolute monarchy, was aware of the traditional influence of the Sudairi bloc and the complexity associated with transferring power to the third generation. This is especially troublesome since Mutib is not the oldest among the descendants of the kingdom’s founder. King Abdullah promoted his half-brother Muqrin to pave the way for his son Mutib later. So he removed Prince Ahmed from the Ministry of Interior and then appointed Muqrin deputy crown prince, a newly created post.

Prince Mutib graduated from the British Sandhurst Military Academy, from which most Gulf princes graduate. He controls and heads the Royal Guard, which is a military strike force that was headed by his father, the late king, for decades. The power balance in Saudi rule did not allow for more than naming a deputy crown prince who was a rival of Prince Mutib. The head of the National Guard was not removed, which would have decisively ended the battle with King Abdullah’s wing. This means that Prince Mutib still retains some power and thus constitutes a part of the actual Saudi power triangle.

It is too early to speculate how Prince Mutib will manage the relations with the rest of the power triangle, which seem politically and family-wise closer to each other. But the upcoming battle to remove Mutib from the presidency of the National Guard — to completely remove the late king’s supporters — will not be easy because this institution has weapons, has the right to import weapons and the majority of its officers are loyal to the late king and his son.

Mohammed bin Nayef

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, is the biggest winner in the hierarchy of the new rule, which made him No. 3 after the king, who is old, and the crown prince, who has limited influence in the power circle.

Prince Mohammed graduated in 1981 from Lewis and Clark College, in Portland, Ore., with a bachelor’s degree in literature and political science. Then he underwent training with the FBI between 1985 and 1988. His mother is Princess Jawhar bint Abdul Aziz bin Mosaed bin Jalawi, who is from one of the Al Saud branches. So Mohammad has a strong presence within the royal family by way of his father, the former crown prince who belonged to Sudairi wing.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has a good reputation in the United States. Two years ago, he met President Barack Obama in Washington. At the time, American newspapers said he was the “closest Saudi minister to the US government.” When late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz removed his brother Prince Ahmad bin Abdul Aziz (from the Sudairi bloc) from the Ministry of Interior to open the way for promoting the younger Prince Mutib bin Abdul Aziz, Mohammed bin Nayef was appointed as Mutib’s deputy in the Interior Ministry. This was an attempt to mitigate the effects of Ahmad’s removal because the new minister is part of the Sudairi bloc.

It is true that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is considered among the biggest winners of the new arrangement, but the promotion of his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Salman as defense minister and as head of the royal court, does not fully open the road in front of the deputy crown prince. This is even though the defense minister has no place in the official power trio.

The actual power triangle consists of three Saudi princes of the third generation. Their positions have changed in recent days, with some moving up and others down. However, they have the necessary ambition and they hold key power connections — the weapons.

In light of past experiences, it is expected that Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman will make an alliance against the third side of the power triangle, Prince Mutib bin Abdullah. This will delay the potential competition between them until after Mutib has been completely neutralized. Until then, the pictures of the king, the crown prince and his deputy will continue to decorate government institutions and official media. However, those who know the real power triangle in Saudi Arabia know that Mohammed bin Salman, Mutib bin Abdullah and Mohammad bin Nayef are the ones who will be fighting for power in the coming period.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from   Mustzafa al Labbad

Recommended Articles

The Takeaway: Qatari official sees encouraging signs in diplomacy to end GCC divisions
Andrew Parasiliti | | Nov 24, 2020
Iraq cool to Iranian offers of military cooperation
Mustafa Saadoun | | Dec 1, 2020
Voter apathy, pandemic result in low turnout, riots in Jordanian election
Osama Al Sharif | Coronavirus | Nov 12, 2020
Can Russia return to Iranian arms market following end of weapons embargo?
Kirill Semenov | Defense/Security cooperation | Oct 26, 2020
Can Russia benefit from Turkey-Greece spat?
Anton Mardasov | Border Disputes | Oct 22, 2020