’Riyadhology’ and Muhammad bin Salman’s Telltale Succession - Lawfare
By Chibli Mallat Friday, June 8, 2018,
Saudi Arabia’s monarchy entered a new era last June when King Salman’s ambitious son Muhammad bin Salman, then just shy of 32, was made crown prince by royal order. MBS, as he is widely known, displaced Muhammad bin Nayef, an influential prince with deep ties to Washington, as next in line to the throne, marking a shift from the aging sons of the country’s founder, ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, to a younger coterie of royals—and skipping the generation in between. Since even before his accession to crown prince, MBS promoted a dynamic agenda of economic and social reforms—with plans to diversify the country’s economy, expand women’s rights and grant greater openness to Western culture—while also cracking down on political dissent.
There are different ways to try to decipher the political intrigue among the Saudi royal family. Among the best available tea leaves are the Saudis’ own legal pronouncements, and the royal orders that brought MBS to his current position are telling. Clearly rushed and poorly vetted, they suggest that King Salman and MBS were working outside the normal process for consensus within the royal family and that there is significant opposition to MBS’s rule waiting in the wings.
Otherwise dry Saudi legal texts tell us much about “Riyadhology”—the Saudi equivalent of Kremlinology in the days of Soviet signal opacity. Laws of social science are more elusive, but I have defended the concept of “constitutional science” against skeptical editors, and sometimes prevailed. If one looks closely enough at key constitutional clauses, the wording reveals a compromise of political powers, each trying to push the language to his advantage. This is trite. More daring is the proposal that the fractured logic of these texts can give clues about a coming crisis.
When MBS was appointed crown prince in June 2017, the irregularities in the official process portended trouble. At stake is the transition of power from King Salman to his son.