Plea by grandson of state’s founder comes as falling oil prices, war in Yemen and loss of faith in authority buffet leadership of King Salman
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. One Saudi royal claims that the king’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ‘is ruling the country’. Photograph: AFP/Getty
By Hugh Miles in Cairo
A senior Saudi prince has launched an unprecedented call for change in the country’s leadership, as it faces its biggest challenge in years in the form of war, plummeting oil prices and criticism of its management of Mecca, scene of last week’s hajj tragedy.
The prince, one of the grandsons of the state’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, has told the Guardian that there is disquiet among the royal family – and among the wider public – at the leadership of King Salman, who acceded the throne in January.
The prince, who is not named for security reasons, wrote two letters earlier this month calling for the king to be removed.
“The king is not in a stable condition and in reality the son of the king [Mohammed bin Salman] is ruling the kingdom,” the prince said. “So four or possibly five of my uncles will meet soon to discuss the letters. They are making a plan with a lot of nephews and that will open the door. A lot of the second generation is very anxious.”
“The public are also pushing this very hard, all kinds of people, tribal leaders,” the prince added. “They say you have to do this or the country will go to disaster.”
A clutch of factors are buffeting King Salman, his crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, and the deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
A double tragedy in Mecca – the collapse of a crane that killed more than 100, followed by a stampede last week that killed 700 – has raised questions not just about social issues, but also about royal stewardship of the holiest site in Islam.
As usual, the Saudi authorities have consistently shrugged off any suggestion that a senior member of the government may be responsible for anything that has gone wrong.
Local people, however, have made clear on social media and elsewhere that they no longer believe such claims.
“The people inside [the kingdom] know what’s going on but they can’t say. The problem is the corruption in using the resources of the country for building things in the right form,” said an activist who lives in Mecca but did not want to be named for fear of repercussions.
“Unfortunately the government points the finger against the lower levels, saying for example: ‘Where are the ambulances? Where are the healthcare workers?’ They try to escape the real reason of such disaster,” he added.
Pilgrims circle the Kaaba shrine in Mecca where more than 700 died during a stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage. Photograph: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi religious and political legitimacy is predicated on their claim that they manage the holy sites properly and make them safely accessible for all Muslims. Since there are no monarchies in Islam and Saudi Arabia itself is not mentioned in the Qur’an, legitimacy is a fundamental issue for the Saudis and the Hajj disasters have been extremely damaging.
But just as urgent is oil, the price of which has dropped more than 50% in the past year. On Monday, the Financial Times reported that Saudi Arabia has withdrawn as much as $70bn (£46bn) from overseas investment funds to shore up its fiscal position in the face of tumbling oil prices
According to Alastair Newton, director of Alavan Business Advisory, Saudi Arabia’s published budget this year was based on oil trading at about $90 a barrel. But because of costly ad hoc items such as royal largesse after King Salman’s succession, the war in Yemen, and domestic security against the Isis threat, the fiscal position is only in balance at about $110.
With oil now trading below $50, fiscal weakness is starting to tell. The Saudi benchmark Tadawul All Share index has fallen by more than 30% in the past 12 months.
“They have enough reserves to sustain this situation for at least one year although it is very costly for them,” said Khairallah Khairallah, a former managing editor of the Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper.
The International Monetary Fund is already predicting Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit to exceed $107bn this year. Yet the budget announced for next year has marginally increased.
“The king is in charge of oil policy in the kingdom together with his son Mohammed bin Salman. Mohammed bin Salman is also responsible for [state oil firm] Aramco. The crown prince [Mohammed bin Nayef] is mainly focused on security. These are the main players in Saudi Arabia. They divide the responsibility,” said Khairallah Khairallah.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a new arrival to the Saudi senior leadership team but has already become one of the most controversial.
Although still very young by Saudi standards – officially 35 but rumoured to be much younger – he holds a multitude of posts including minister of defence and chair of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, which is the country’s main economic policymaking committee.
This makes him responsible for many of Saudi Arabia’s problems, above all the war in neighbouring Yemen, where rebel Houthis have come under attack from Saudi aircraft and ground forces.
Many Saudis are sickened by the sight of the Arab world’s richest country pummelling its poorest, and as the cost in lives and treasure grows, criticism is mounting that Prince Mohammed bin Salman– whose unofficial nickname is “Reckless” – rushed in without a proper military strategy or an exit plan.
Smoke billows upward after airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on Houthi rebels in Sana’a, Yemen. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA
“This is a war against the Yemeni nation and against Yemen becoming independent,” said Sgt Maj Dakheel bin Naser Al Qahtani, a former head of air force operations at King Abdulaziz airbase, Dhahran, who defected from the Saudi armed forces last year.
“It has no legitimate political foundation and it is not what the people want,” he said. “Ninety per cent of people in Saudi Arabia don’t want this to happen, exactly the opposite of what the media shows.
“It has come about due to the absence of a national citizens’ establishment in Saudi Arabia and because Al Saud have put their own interests ahead of the national interest.”
The letters in Arabic calling for the overthrow of the king have been read more than 2m times. The letters call on the 13 surviving sons of Ibn Saud – specifically the princes Talal, Turki and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz – to unite and remove the leadership in a palace coup, before choosing a new government from within the royal family.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
“Allow the oldest and most capable to take over the affairs of the state, let the new king and crown prince take allegiance from all, and cancel the strange, new rank of second deputy premier,” states the first letter.
“We are calling for the sons of Ibn Saud from the oldest Bandar, to the youngest, Muqrin, to make an urgent meeting with the senior family members to investigate the situation and find out what can be done to save the country, to make changes in the important ranks, to bring in expertise from the ruling family whatever generation they are from.”
The letters are unlike anything that has happened since King Faisal deposed King Saud in a palace coup in 1964.
The prince behind the letters claims to have received widespread support from both within the royal family and society at large. But only one other senior royal has so far publicly endorsed the letter, which may be unsurprising given the Saudis’ brutal history of punishing political opponents.
Like many modern Arab countries Saudi Arabia is a 20th-century construction. Since 1932, when Saudi Arabia was founded, the royal family has kept the country together masterfully. But as the economic and political situation in and around Saudi Arabia deteriorates, and royal family infighting intensifies, the possibility of a profound change is growing more likely.
Sons of King Abdulaziz
The list of King Abdulaziz’s surviving sons, except for current Saudi monarch Salman, are as follows:
Bandar bin Abdulaziz (born 1923) – Eldest surviving son, who is reportedly alive still.
Mishaal bin Abdulaziz (born 1926) – Former minister of defense and governor of Makkah Province. Close confidant of King Abdullah, and chairman of the Allegiance Council, Mishaal is one of the Kingdom’s wealthiest royals with extensive interests in real estate and a wide range of business interests.
Abdul Rahman bin Abdulaziz (born 1931) – Deputy defense minister from 1978 to 2011.
Mutaib bin Abdulaziz (born 1931) – Minister of municipal and rural affairs from 1975 to 2009. He has a long-standing family alliance with King Abdullah.
Talal bin Abdulaziz (born 1931) – Held the ministerial portfolios for finance and communications in the 1950s. Major businessman, special envoy to UNESCO and chairman of AGFUND. He had a leading role in the Free Princes movement of 1958 which sought government reform. He resigned in 2011 from the Allegiance Council.
Turki II bin Abdulaziz (born 1934) – Businessman after he was forced to resign as Deputy Minister of Defense in 1978.
Abdul llah bin Abdulaziz (born 1939) – Former governor of Al Jawf Province. He was special advisor to King Abdullah from 2008 to 2015.
Mamdouh bin Abdulaziz (born 1940) – Former governor of Tabuk region who was removed from the post by King Fahd for insubordination. Later he was made director of Saudi Center of Strategic Studies.
Ahmed bin Abdulaziz (born 1942) – Deputy minister of interior from 1975 to 2012; minister of interior from June 2012 to 5 November 2012.
Mashhur bin Abdulaziz (born 1942)
Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (born 1945) – Director general of the General Intelligence Directorate from 2005 to 2012; former governor of Ha’il and Madinah provinces. He was appointed second deputy prime minister on 1 February 2013 and he was made crown prince on 23 January 2015 when his half-brother Salman became king. On 28 April 2015 Muqrin was granted resignation based on his request to start the next generation of the royals.
Hugh Miles discusses regime change in Saudi Arabia on BBC
LETTERS OF THE DISIDENT PRINCE TO THE SAUDI ROYAL FAMILY