Rise of Saudi prince shatters decades of royal tradition

Deputy Crown Prince Salman's emergence has set up a potential rivalry for the Saudi throne.
Deputy Crown Prince Salman's emergence has set up a potential rivalry for the Saudi throne.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • He has slashed the state budget, frozen government contracts and reduced the pay of civil employees, all part of drastic austerity measures as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is buffeted by low oil prices.

But, last year, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Salman saw a yacht he could not resist.

While vacationing in the south of France, he spotted a 440-foot yacht floating off the coast. He dispatched an aide to buy the vessel, the Serene, which was owned by Mr Yuri Shefler, a Russian vodka tycoon.

The deal was done within hours, at a price of approximately €500 million (S$762 million), according to an associate of Mr Shefler and a Saudi close to the royal family.

It is a paradox of the brash, 31-year-old Prince Salman, a man who is trying to overturn tradition, reinvent the economy and consolidate power - while holding tight to his royal privilege. In less than two years, he has emerged as the most dynamic royal in the Arab world's wealthiest nation, setting up a potential rivalry for the throne.

He has a hand in nearly all elements of Saudi policy - from a war in Yemen that has cost the kingdom billions of dollars and led to international criticism over civilian deaths, to a push domestically to restrain Saudi Arabia's free-spending habits and to break its "addiction" to oil. He has also begun to loosen social restrictions that grate on young people.

Prince Salman's rise has shattered decades of tradition in the royal family, where respect for seniority and power-sharing among branches are time-honoured traditions. Never before in Saudi history has so much power been wielded by the deputy crown prince, who is second in line to the throne. That centralisation of authority has angered many of his relatives.

His seemingly boundless ambitions have led many Saudis and foreign officials to suspect that his ultimate goal is not just to transform the kingdom, but also to shove aside the current crown prince, his 57-year-old cousin, Prince Mohammed Nayef, to become the next king.

Such a move could further upset his relatives and - if successful - give the country what it has never seen: a young king who could rule the kingdom for many decades.

Prince Nayef, the Interior Minister and longtime counterterrorism czar, has deep ties with Washington and the support of many of the older royals. Deciphering the dynamics of the family can be like trying to navigate a hall of mirrors, but many Saudi and United States officials say Prince Salman has made moves aimed at reaching into Prince Nayef's portfolios and weakening him.

This has left officials in Washington hedging their bets by building relationships with both men, unsure who will end up on top. The White House got an early sign of the ascent of the young prince late last year, when - breaking protocol - Prince Salman delivered a soliloquy about the failures of US foreign policy during a meeting between his father, King Salman, and President Barack Obama.

Many young Saudis admire him as an energetic representative of their generation who has addressed some of the country's problems with uncommon bluntness. The kingdom's media has built his image as a hardworking, businesslike leader less concerned than his predecessors with the trappings of royalty.

Others see him as a power-hungry upstart who is risking instability by changing too much, too fast.

Most Saudi watchers do not expect any struggles within the family to spill into the open, as all the royals understand how much they have to lose from such fissures becoming public or destabilising their grip on the kingdom.

"Not a single member of the family will do anything to hurt the family," said Mr Joseph Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'Rise of Saudi prince shatters decades of royal tradition'. Print Edition | Subscribe