By Akhil Shah*
Modern history has demonstrated that Middle Eastern rulers face high political risks in the aftermath of humiliating military defeats. This is particularly true when victory is expected. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military campaign in Yemen has fallen short of what Riyadh had in mind on March 26, when it launched “Operation Decisive Storm” (later named “Operation Restoring Hope”). That four months into the Saudi-led campaign there is still no end in sight is problematic for the kingdom’s image. Moreover, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud risks losing power as a result of a costly quagmire in Yemen, which would alter Saudi Arabia’s current line of succession.
For the Saudi leadership—and to various extents its fellow Arab statesmen in eight other capitals—the war in Yemen presented an opportunity to stamp their authority both regionally (against Iranian influence) and domestically (against democratic opposition movements). For Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the conflict was critical. As a young and inexperienced member of the ruling Al Saud family, he has most likely led efforts in Yemen to publically establish his leadership credentials. Yet, the less than fruitful results and deadly blowback have left him open to much criticism—internally and externally—and have provided more senior princes with a legitimate reason to remove him from the line of succession following the death of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
H.E. Goemans, a professor of international relations at the University of Rochester, wrote that if a leader loses a war “disastrously…leaders are not only likely to lose power but also suffer additional punishment.” His study, which can be directly applied to the military losses of Middle Eastern states, concludes that repressive and exclusionary regimes such as Saudi Arabia build a repressive state apparatus to maintain power.
A critical example of this was the Iraqi Ba’athist Party in the aftermath of the military loss to Kuwait. Saddam Hussein faced a number of issues as his leadership was constantly challenged and questioned. Top Iraqi regime officials, including two of Hussein’s son-in-laws, defected and disassociated themselves from the party and its leadership. Saddam, due in part to the state apparatus, was able to pre-empt internal dissent. The Iraqi leader purged potential military and political opposition, executing thousands.
Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait is only one example. Others include Egypt and Syria’s wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, and Libya’s intervention in Chad from 1977 to 1986.
Yet the key difference between the aforementioned military defeats and the ongoing Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is the group constituting the opposition. Riyadh’s expensive war against the Houthis will face scrutiny from a growing unemployed youth population. There will likely be international opposition as well as criticism from voices within the ruling family. Whereas Saddam Hussein’s regime relied on brutal and reprehensible tactics to maintain a firm grasp on power, Mohamed bin Salman is in no position to execute members of his extended family as a means to hold power. The Deputy Crown Prince faces a dire dilemma in terms of his next move. Goemans’ theory states that if a loss is severe enough, the leadership will seem weak and the power of the repressive state apparatus will diminish, encouraging domestic opposition. How Mohamed bin Salman reacts to this will certainly impact the prospects for him one day becoming the King of Saudi Arabia.
For legitimacy, the Saudis have largely relied on their role as the “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques.” In particular, this self-declared role allowed the kingdom’s rulers to present a certain image of Saudi Arabia as the de facto leader of the Muslim world. However, as a consequence of the richest Arab country’s humiliation in the poorest Arab country, where it is fighting an opponent with far less military backing or training (certainly compared to Saudi Arabia with arms and training provided by Washington), this image of Saudi Arabia is weakening.
Mohamed bin Salman appears constantly in picture form throughout media coverage. Saudi Arabia’s public image has therefore become increasingly synonymous with that of the Deputy Crown Prince. The continuation of Riyadh’s failed campaign in Yemen can only diminish the kingdom’s ‘strongman’ image. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Sunni Arab world is becoming increasingly relegated to the kingdom’s religious establishment. Mohammed bin Salman’s legitimacy and credentials to lead the kingdom are quickly fading. Given that Riyadh’s crisis unfolds under Mohammed bin Salman’s watch as Deputy Crown Prince, more opposition within the royal family to the idea of him serving as king may mount in due course.
A Convenient Scapegoat
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s lack of a presence in this conflict is particularly interesting. Publically, he is known as the father of the kingdom’s counter-terrorism program and is a favorite among Western allies. The Crown Prince is credited with defeating al-Qaeda’s efforts to topple the Al Saud family in the mid-2000s. Beyond this, Mohammed bin Nayef also serves as Chairman of the new Council for Political and Security Affairs. Considering this position, it is strange that Mohamed bin Nayef is not at the forefront of Riyadh’s war in Yemen.
Perhaps Mohammed bin Nayef, in knowing his cousin’s need to prove his leadership capabilities, is allowing the Deputy Crown Prince to serve as the face of the Yemen campaign so that he can take the political damage and potentially lose legitimacy as a successor to the throne. Given that Mohamed bin Salman is not well-liked, nor deeply respected within the ruling Saudi family this may well be the case.
The ruling Al Saud family’s size creates a general lack of trust, especially with the Sudairi Seven (the line of Abdulaziz bin Saud and Hassa bint Ahmad Al-Sudairi) having been restored to a prominent and central position in Saudi Arabia’s political structure. Princes do spy on each other for the purpose of acquiring information to leverage for positions of greater power. Numerous princes from the third generation, many of whom are older than the Deputy Crown Prince, will eye an opportunity to make claims. Principally, there will be cries of “I would have done it better if I had been in charge”. Dissent and grumblings are thought to be widespread within the ruling family. It is not difficult to understand why many princes would be motivated to use the Yemen war against Mohammed bin Salman. After all, the Saudi throne comes with billions of dollars and virtually unlimited power.
Rumors persist within certain circles that Mohamed bin Nayef is considering changing the kingdom’s line of succession. Sources in Saudi Arabia have indicated that he would prefer his nephew, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, to become his Crown Prince, thus removing Mohammed bin Salman from the line to the throne. Abdulaziz, who is often seen in the background of photos of the Crown Prince, is purportedly being groomed for a leadership role in the Saudi monarchy.
Although the Al Saud family’s grasp on power is currently strong, the military campaign is embarrassing enough for the kingdom’s rulers to require a scapegoat. Ongoing events point to Mohammed bin Salman filling that role. Consequently, he may no longer serve in a prominent position of power after his father ceases to be the King of Saudi Arabia. While the Deputy Crown Prince may not face arrest or exile, it is highly possible that he will be relegated to a junior position within the establishment.
While Saudi Arabia initially launched “Operation Decisive Storm” as part of an effort to unite the ruling family behind Mohammed bin Salman, the conflict may ultimately prove to be his undoing.
About the author:
*Akhil Shah is a counterterrorism and foreign policy analyst at the Washington, DC-based Institute for Gulf Affairs.