When King Salman and his son Mohammed came to power, there was hope of sorely needed leadership in the region. Instead, they may have fragmented it beyond repair

David Hearst
Wednesday 21 June 2017 14:56 UTC

The final act of the palace coup I have been writing about since King Salman took over has just been completed. Everyone was waiting for a coup against Qatar. In fact, the coup was within the kingdom itself.

It took place in the middle of the night after fajr, the Muslim prayer that heralds the dawn of a new day, and millions of Saudis woke to a new reality - a 31-year-old prince is going to be the next king.


Step by step, the last obstacle to bin Salman's vertiginous rise to power, his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, has been stripped of his power. There was little he could do to stop it, but he fought all the way.

First, his royal court went, then a national security council was created over his head. Then his ministry was stripped of its prosecutorial role. Then the operation to isolate Qatar, one of his closest allies, was launched.

What does it mean?

All the levers of power are now in the hands of a young, inexperienced and risk-taking man, who in his short time in power as defence minister has established a reputation for recklessness.

He launched an air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen and then disappeared on holiday to the Maldives. It took days before the US defence secretary could reach him. Ten thousand deaths later, the Houthis are still firmly in the capital Sanaa, the liberated south has split from Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi's control and cholera has broken out.

Each file bin Salman has picked up has found its way into the office shredder.

He first introduced austerity by rolling out deep pay cuts to government employees, warning the country would be bankrupt in five years. Then he reversed the cuts, claiming financial stability had been created. Then he committed himself to up to $500bn of military purchases from America.


Under bin Salman, the kingdom has gone from micromanaging the Syria opposition (to the extent of telling the head of the negotiating committee in Geneva exactly when the delegation should leave for the airport to ensure the breakdown of talks) to losing interest in the rebels altogether. As a Saudi ally, you can be hung out to dry at any time.

Be it in Yemen, Syria or Qatar, the crown prince has already earned another title: the prince of chaos.

Bin Salman's mentor

He has, however, followed instructions. As Middle East Eye reported at the time, the young prince's mentor, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, gave him two words of advice to speed him on his way to the throne.

The first was to open a channel of communication with Israel. This he has now done, and under his command, the kingdom is closer than it has ever been to starting trade links with Tel Aviv. Both the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, are reading from the same script on attempting to blacklist Hamas.

The second instruction was to diminish the power of the religious authorities in the kingdom.

Although bin Salman has reduced the influence of the religious establishment on the daily life of the Saudis, he is using it to bolster his authority. A series of tweets by the Ulama, the Saudi Committee of Senior Scholars, demonstrates how religion has been pressed into the service of politics.


The message from this is brutally clear. Political parties are not allowed. We are not giving you democracy, but theocracy and autocracy.
Even the timing of the last act of this palace coup is significant. Prince bin Salman will receive allegiance from his family and the public in Mecca on the 27th night of Ramadan, Laylat al-Qadr, the night of power when prayers are magnified in importance a thousand times. This is the most important night in the Islamic calendar.

This is not a king in waiting who intends to neutralise the role of religion in the affairs of state. He is using it to establish his own autocratic rule.

Yemen next



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