Saudi Arabia’s Nepotism Problem

by Derek Davison

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has been rising through the ranks of Saudi nobility for several years. Since entering government as an adviser to his father in 2009, when the future King Salman was governor of Riyadh province, MBS has seen his stature grow in tandem with Salman’s. When Salman was appointed defense minister and deputy prime minister in 2011, MBS went with him. After Salman became crown prince in 2012, he eventually maneuvered his son into the post of chief of the Crown Prince Court, which included an appointment as a state minister.

Once Salman became king, in January 2015, the pace of MBS’s rise went from gradual to meteoric. He immediately assumed his father’s former position of defense minister and by April had been appointed deputy crown prince, second in line for the Saudi throne. Then, this past June, King Salman stripped then-Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef of his position, amid rumors of drug addiction, and promoted the 32-year old MBS as his new crown prince and heir apparent. MBS is now next in line for the throne and, if rumors about King Salman’s health are to be believed, may already be running—or may already have been running—Saudi Arabia behind the scenes.

Since the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded, only once—upon the death of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, in 1953—has power passed directly from father to son. The six kings since Ibn Saud have all been his sons, and power has passed from half-brother to half-brother. Muhammad bin Nayef would have been the first of Ibn Saud’s grandsons to inherit the throne. That honor will now presumably fall to MBS, but the fact that it will pass to him from his own father raises questions of nepotism that haven’t historically been an issue in the Saudi succession process.

Those concerns are underlined by MBS’s performance on the job. As the beneficiary of what seems to be his father’s patronage, MBS has taken on a number of important positions and responsibilities despite his youth. A clear-eyed assessment of the major initiatives he’s undertaken in those positions would have to conclude, troublingly, that the heir apparent to the Saudi throne has failed in just about every one of them.

War Crimes in Yemen

After being appointed defense minister, MBS quickly undertook his first big project: a major Saudi-led intervention into Yemen’s civil war on behalf of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, alleged by the Saudis to be Iranian proxies. At the head of a coalition including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis launched “Operation Decisive Storm” in March 2015, and the Saudi air force quickly gained full control of Yemeni air space—not hard, since Yemen’s rebels have no aircraft. The intervention was renamed “Operation Restoring Hope” in April. “Restoring Hope” has continued to the present day.

To say the least, these operations have proven neither decisive nor restorative. As of earlier this month, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had documented 13,893 civilian casualties (5,144 killed and 8,749 injured) in Yemen over the two-and-a-half years since the Saudis intervened, most of which have been caused by coalition air strikes. On top of that, the Saudi-led air campaign and concurrent blockade have caused what the World Health Organization calls “the world’s worst cholera outbreak,” with over 500,000 people infected and nearly 2,000 dead. The intervention has also led to widespread starvation inside Yemen. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof compiled a photo essay (warning, those pictures are graphic) showing the effects of the war on Yemeni children, in which he justifiably referred to Saudi actions in Yemen as “war crimes”—

Let’s be blunt: With U.S. and U.K. complicity, the Saudi government is committing war crimes in Yemen.


“The country is on the brink of famine, with over 60 percent of the population not knowing where their next meal will come from,” the leaders of the U.N. World Food Program, Unicef and the World Health Organization said in an unusual joint statement.

Some Yemenis, desperate to make enough money to survive in a country whose economy and basic support networks have all been shattered, have turned to selling their organs.

What have the Saudis, under MBS’s leadership, achieved by causing all this human suffering? Almost nothing. After pushing the Yemeni rebels out of southern Yemen and as far north as the city of Taiz, the coalition has failed to advance any further north, leaving the country mired in a military and political stalemate while millions of Yemenis remain at grave risk with only sporadic access to humanitarian aid. The UN is under tremendous pressure to add Saudi Arabia to its list of countries responsible for mass casualties of children, something it nearly did in 2016 only to have the Saudis threaten their way off of the list.

The coalition, meanwhile, has shown signs of cracking, as secessionist southern militias with UAE support have been clashing with Hadi loyalists in and around the important southern port city of Aden. And despite a recent surge in U.S. airstrikes against it, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains the one party that has unambiguously benefited from the intervention.

In other words, the intervention has been a catastrophe on almost every level. Even Riyadh’s rationale for getting involved, the supposed Houthi connection to Iran, is and always has been overblown. It’s little wonder then that MBS, who got the Saudis into Yemen in the first place, is now reportedly desperate to get out of it.

Manufacturing a Crisis with Qatar

MBS’s most recent initiative, undertaken in June with the help of his mentor, UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, has been leading a quartet of nations—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE—to break off diplomatic ties with and impose strong economic sanctions against Qatar. Citing Qatar’s “support for terrorism,” its cordial relations with Iran, and its Al Jazeera news network, the four nations have ejected Qatari nationals from their countries, closed land and sea borders with Qatar, and banned Qatari flights from their airspace. The quartet subsequently presented Doha with a list of 13 demands that Qatar would need to meet before full relations could be restored.

Despite getting an unreserved, early endorsement from President Donald Trump, the Qatar blockade, like the Yemen intervention, has clearly not gone the way MBS might have hoped. Instead of knuckling under to Saudi demands, the Qataris have drifted further from Riyadh’s geopolitical orbit. They’ve strengthened military ties with Turkey and economic ties with Russia, and—most galling of all from the Saudi perspective—restored full diplomatic relations with Iran late last month. Several countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Morocco, reached out quickly to provide Qatar with food aid after the Saudis closed their shared land border. The international community, even the once-enthusiastic Trump, has largely called for a diplomatic end to this crisis rather than, as the Saudis might have hoped, for Qatar’s capitulation.

Any Saudi hopes of creating enough public discontent in Doha to trigger regime change appear to have collapsed. Although the Qatari economy has suffered as a result of the quartet’s blockade, whatever impact that’s had on the Qatari people has been overwhelmed by a resurgent Qatari nationalism driven by anger toward the quartet. The Saudi attempt to elevate two distant cousins of Qatar’s ruling Thani family as alternatives to the current emir, Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani, have been transparently ham-fisted.

In other words, the effort to isolate and subjugate Qatar is yet another Saudi failure on MBS’s watch.

King MBS and the Future

Mohammad bin Salman is, barring something totally unforeseen, going to be the king of Saudi Arabia one day. Rumors have been rampant since his elevation to crown prince in June that his father, King Salman, was planning to abdicate, which could mean that MBS will find himself on the throne relatively soon. What can Saudi Arabia and the world expect from Mohammad bin Salman’s reign?

First and foremost to consider is MBS’s third and perhaps most important initiative: Vision 2030, his plan for diversifying the Saudi economy away from dependence on fossil fuels. This effort is vital to the kingdom’s long-term stability and prosperity in a world where oil prices remain relatively low and Saudi Arabia’s finite supply eventually starts to run out. But there is already reason to believe that its centerpiece, a partial privatization of the country’s massive state-owned Aramco energy conglomerate, is being wildly overpriced relative to the company’s actual value. And given MBS’s track record in Yemen and Qatar, is there really any reason to believe he’s capable of overseeing a complete overhaul of the Saudi economy?

On human rights—this week’s welcome news about women drivers notwithstanding—the young monarch is not likely to take a more progressive position toward individual freedoms and protecting minorities. He’s already provided a preview, and it’s not pleasant:

Saudi Arabia has begun a wide-ranging crackdown against perceived opponents of the policies of the kingdom’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.


Over the last week, 16 people were held, their friends, relatives and associates said in interviews. They include prominent Islamic clerics, academics, a poet, an economist, a journalist, the head of a youth organization, at least two women and one prince, a son of a former king.


Some of them were taken from their homes in unannounced raids by security forces, and their computers, cellphones and personal papers were seized, the friends and relatives said. Those arrested have been held incommunicado, and it is not clear if they have been formally charged with crimes. Saudi Arabia has not publicly released any evidence it might have against them.

Saudi Arabia is already intolerant of dissent and brutal with minorities it deems problematic. But on MBS’s watch that intolerance has reached new heights, and the country’s treatment of its Shia minority has approached a level of brutality that could be termed “religious cleansing.” If this is what life will look like under King Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi people are in for a difficult ride.

Photo: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. It is naive to expect or judge SA to 21 century norms,they are feudal and klan structured societies..Sad part POTUS f it is destruction of Yemen,your excellent article illustrates very well.

  2. Abrupt change for the worse — Passing of Kingship to brethren from the same mother to son and that too to this young egocentric nincompoop. Bad to worse days are on its way.

  3. About 35 years ago, a senior Israel intelligence officer told me he didn’t think Saudi Arabia could ever incur a revolution like the 1979 one in Iran — there are too many princes embedded at all levels of Saudi society. If that officer is still alive (which I doubt), I wonder if he’d still hold that opinion The rise of MBS opens the door for any one of numerous princes to stage a revolt — not to mention the Salafist allies of Al-Qaeda.

  4. Derek- if you know better than the Saudis teach them. I changed many things they do- to their face not on a blog very few read.

  5. The 800K Shias living on the SA Eastern front and operating the SA oil facilities will eventually rise up and destroy this sheikdom! Then MBS will ask what the heck just happened here!

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