Saudi Family Dispute Bursts into the Open

King Salman’s favorite son, Mohammad, is held responsible for a reckless foreign policy.

Saudi defense minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud greets his American counterpart, Ash Carter, in Washington DC, May 13
Saudi defense minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud greets his American counterpart, Ash Carter, in Washington DC, May 13 (DoD/Glenn Fawcett)

German intelligence this week warned that a generational transition in Saudi Arabia could lead to further instability in the Middle East.

In an unusually blunt assessment of the Western-allied kingdom’s policy, the Federal Intelligence Service warned in a memo that was distributed to German media that, “The cautious diplomatic stance of the older leading members of the royal family is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention.”

The Foreign Ministry quickly repudiated the spies’ warning, saying that the “statement reported by media is not the position of the federal government.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Favorite son

The Atlantic Sentinel reported earlier this year that King Salman, who came to the throne after the death of his brother, Abdullah, in January, was grooming his favorite son, Mohammad bin Salman, as a potential successor. He was put second in line to the throne as deputy crown prince and named chairman of a new council that oversees the state oil company, Saudi Aramco.

Mohammad was already defense minister at the time. In the capacity, he has led the Saudi military intervention in neighboring Yemen where Houthi rebels are supported by the Sunni regime’s nemesis, Iran.

According to the Germans, the concentration of so much power in the hands of a single prince “contains the latent danger that, in an attempt to establish himself in the royal succession while his father is still alive, he could overreach with expensive measures or reforms that would unsettle other members of the royal family and the population.”

Family divisions

There are signs that Mohammad’s elevation has already rattled his seniors.

Britain’s The Times reported earlier this year that letters were circulating among members of the royal family calling for the removal of the king and his anointed successors.

“How did we accept that our fate depends on the whims of adolescents and the visions of the reckless?” one of the letters was purported to say.

The Saudi war in Yemen is not going well and the kingdom’s position looks precarious across the Middle East. It has failed to dislodge Iran’s ally in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, and seen its influence wane in Baghdad, where Iranian-backed politicians now have the upper hand.

America, long Saudi Arabia’s protector, is seen as disengaging from the region. No longer dependent on Saudi oil and weary of Middle Eastern wars, it has deliberately stayed on the sidelines in Syria as well as Yemen.

German intelligence said Salman and his son intend to restore Saudi leadership in the Arab world “with a strong military component and new regional alliances.”

It seems not everyone in Riyadh is convinced they can succeed.