A fortnight after a convulsive palace intrigue in Saudi Arabia shocked the world, three questions hog the limelight. Will the kingdom's 81-year-old King abdicate the throne and give way to his son Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman? Will Saudi Arabia go to direct war with Iran? Will the world witness another oil shock? All these are possible. Actually, crazier things can happen in the Middle East. Let's look at the abdication question.
In December 2015, Germany's spy agency had issued a public memo that said Saudi Arabia was emerging as the "new destabilizing influence" in the Middle East. The unusual memo by the BND also predicted that Mohammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old princeling who was suddenly elevated as deputy crown prince and defence minister, would not stop there -- that he would force his way on to the top bypasing long-held succession norms in the country.
The prince's meteoric rise "harbours a latent risk that in seeking to establish himself in the line of succession in his father's lifetime, he may overreach," the memo said.
Outlandish prediction turns true?
That stinging prediction earned the agency a reprisal in the country. A soothsaying that looked too outlandish at that point is closer to reality just two years later. The abdication of King Salman is all but a foregone conclusion. The crown prince has waded deep and far too much into the waters and trying to stay merely afloat is perilous. Absolute power is absolutely necessary under conditions that exist in Saud Arabia today.
The crown prince was the force behind Saudi Arabia's much criticised war in Yemen and he was the prime mover behind the spectacular burnout of the fancied Gulf unity when Qatar was ostracised and blockaded as a terror supporter. MBS clearly decided who among his cousins and uncles would go to prison for alleged corruption. Now he's again the force behind the ouster of Saad al Hariri in Lebanon, a move that only pushes Riyadh far too much into Lebanese theatre and on a warpath with Iran. He can't just remain the crown prince for long; he should go far.
And there are some factors that would offer some clemency to a final bid for power. The king is ailing and the world knows it. "Salman is 81 and suffers from pre-dementia. The state of his health is a closely guarded secret," Brookings Institute said in a report earlier this year.
And what are the portents to watch, if any? The announcement of a deputy crown prince can be a certain indication that King Salman is abdicating. However, finding a suitable princeling from a multitude, especially a younger lackey to the 32-year-old heir apparent, might be tricky business.
End of rule by family consensus
Modern Saudi Arabia has seen only one royal abdication -- that of King Saud in 1964. And it was not a genial, straight-laced abdication either. Saud, the son of the country's founder Ibn Saud, was forced out during trying domestic economic crisis in the sixties. King Faisal, who dethroned Saud, was subsequently assassinated by a nephew eleven years later.
Succession in the House of Saud had since been predictable with the sons of Saud ascending the throne as per broad seniority and family consensus. What came across as filial unity to the unknowing outside world was shattered in 2015, with the ascension of King Salman to the throne. Three months after coming to power he ousted his brother Muqrin as heir apparent and installed his nephew Mohammad bin Nayef as crown prince. A little over a year later, Nayef was shown the door and MBS was ushered in as the heir apparent.
Now, MBS has his hands on all levers of governance in the country. He directly controls the economy, military, the oil economy, foreign affairs and internal security. And he has dangerously set in motion a slew of 'Saudi modernisation' measures unthinkable in the past. Chief among them is a purported war on 'extremism'. This has to be seen in context. It happens in country that's the fountainhead of most of the real Islamic terror the world has seen in the last several decades.
There's a royal decree in place to subject the Hadiths to a closer look so as to eliminate false teachings that gave rise to militant Salafism. The clergy's wings are clipped and the religious police have lost their pervasive powers. Women have been allowed to drive. The war on corruption has targeted the most eminent and powerful royals.
Perils of modernisation
There's some useful history here. For the most part of 1960s and 70s Saudi Arabia and Iran had nervy but friendly ties. The ultra modernist Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, would encourage King Faisal to modernise his country in a series of brotherly missives. In one such letter, the Shah said: "Please, my brother, modernize. Open up your country. Make the schools mixed women and men. Let women wear miniskirts. Have discos. Be modern. Otherwise, I cannot guarantee you will stay on your throne."
King Faisal wrote back: "Your majesty, I appreciate your advice. May I remind you, you are not the Shah of France. You are not in the Élysée. You are in Iran. Your population is 90 percent Muslim. Please don't forget that."
In the end, Faisal was right. The prosperous Shah, who loaned billions of dollars to countries including Britain and France, was ousted in some years and chased out of the country like a rabid dog. There were no more Iranian women wearing mini-skirts either after that.
Certainly MBS is holding a double-edged sword. He would rather not be a pretender for long. Grabbing absolute power as soon as possible is the safest way forward for him.