“Saudi Arabia’s Game of Thrones” Bernard Haykel, Project Syndicate, 24 June 2017

“MBS, who is nothing if not ambitious, has set two broad goals for Saudi Arabia: 1) Vision 2030  to diversify the Saudi economy, by reducing  dependence on oil. 2) Turn Saudi Arabia into a regional military hegemon that can stand up to Iran”.

By appointing his favourite son as crown prince, Salman, who is now 81, has signaled a clear break from a decades-old tradition of building consensus among the leading sons of the Saudi state’s founder, the late King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. Saudi Arabia is no longer a power-sharing gerontocracy. It has returned to the absolute monarchy that it was under Ibn Saud. Power is concentrated entirely in the hands of the king, who has delegated most of it to his son, the new Crown Prince. MBS’s rise will streamline decision-making, and mitigate the political risks inherent in any system of multiple, competing power centers. There is now absolute clarity on succession and where power lies. But while this arrangement has advantages, it also has potential pitfalls, because far-reaching decisions could go unquestioned and unchallenged. When Salman dies, MBS will be king, to rule Saudi Arabia for many decades, leaving his imprint. His rise to power – which started in 2009, when he became an adviser to his father, then governor of Riyadh Province – has been meteoric. MBS has won a race to the throne that included hundreds of princes, most older and more experienced – and all of whom feel entitled to rule--. The King’s favoritism gave MBS a leg up; but that alone does not explain his success. MBS relied on his wit, guile and force of personality to consolidate power and assert his authority over key sectors of Saudi society: the royal family itself; the bureaucracy and technocratic elites; the media and intelligentsia; the massive national oil company, Saudi Aramco; and the religious establishment. MBS took the initiative to reach out to US President Trump and his team immediately after the US election, and his efforts paid off, culminating in Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May --a major victory for Saudi Arabia--.

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“Saudi Arabia’s Game of Thrones” Bernard Haykel, Project Syndicate, 24 June 2017

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