By Madawi al-Rasheed
to the actions of the impetuous Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — from the
brutal war in Yemen to picking a fight with Canada to, most recently, the
apparent murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi — Saudi Arabia is at risk of
becoming a pariah state. The royal court in Riyadh — including King Salman bin
Abdulaziz — surely realizes that this situation cannot continue.
they are smart they will take decisive action. First, King Salman needs to
remove Prince Mohammed from his post, admit responsibility for the
assassination of Mr. Khashoggi, and face consequences. Later, if Saudi Arabia
truly wants to become a respected member of the international community, the
government should take steps toward becoming a constitutional monarchy.
idea that King Salman would replace his son, also known as M.B.S., with a less
boisterous and erratic crown prince might appear unrealistic — but it has
precedents. If it is the will of the king, dismissing a crown prince is not
very difficult or controversial. King Salman already sacked two crown princes
when he became king in 2015: his half brother, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, and
his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. They were both sidelined by royal
there is a more useful historical example when we consider M.B.S.: In the
1960s, King Saud bin Abdulaziz became an embarrassment to the royal family as
he plundered wealth, plotted to assassinate Arab leaders such as Gamal Abdel
Nasser of Egypt, and later waved the flag of anti-imperialism and Arab
kingdom was on the brink of bankruptcy and the United States was alarmed.
Several princes led by Talal bin Abdulaziz, the father of Prince Walid bin
Talal, went into exile in Beirut and Cairo, from where they demanded a
Saud became persona non grata in the royal family. Crown Prince Faisal bin
Abdulaziz, a shrewd strategist, worked with other princes, got a religious
decree from the clergy, and forced King Saud to abdicate after besieging his
palace with the National Guard.
Salman and the other moderate figures in the royal family don’t necessarily
need to besiege the palace, but they could find a more peaceful way to push
are several eligible candidates to replace the disastrous Prince Mohammed.
Prince Ahmad, a brother of King Salman, who has been sidelined for a long time
after a short career as deputy minister of interior, may be a good choice. He
is a marginal figure and neither powerful nor aggressive. Given the resentment
against the iron fist of M.B.S. and his willingness to humiliate senior members
of the royal family, Prince Ahmad’s less adversarial style might help Saudi
Arabia to re-establish the shattered royal consensus.
from him, the more prominent contenders could be King Salman’s nephews, former
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was removed and humiliated over a year
ago, and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who ran the Saudi Arabian National Guard
before he was detained and released in 2017.
Muhammad bin Nayef has a reputation for ruthlessness and may not be able to
amass support from the royalty and the commoners. He was loved by the Western
governments for his campaign against Al Qaeda since 2003 and was offered the
George Tenet medal by the C.I.A. weeks before he was dismissed as crown prince
in 2015. But he also spread fear in society, detaining and torturing activists,
and many Saudis suffered as he used the war on terror to silence peaceful
contrast, Prince Mutaib’s name is not associated with repression. His power
base was among the tribal groups that joined the national guard. He can live
off the reputation of his father as the old patron of the kingdom. If he
continues the paternalism of his father, he may become a focal symbol for
rebuilding trust among his own kin.
knows for sure what the Saudi royals are thinking, but nobody would challenge
King Salman if he replaces his son. Most people patronized by M.B.S. are recent
appointees and should not be expected to put up a fight against King Salman.
is unclear if the aging King Salman fully understands that damage M.B.S. has
done to the kingdom — tarnished its reputation through reckless wars,
detentions, torture, and now murder, alienated the broader royal family,
shattered its old consensus. Cosmetic measures — women driving, cinemas,
theaters — are not enough to usher in a new dawn in the kingdom.
a long shot, if King Salman does replace M.B.S., he must transform the absolute
Saudi monarchy into a constitutional monarchy with an elected government and
parliament, who approve the appointment of future kings and crown princes. That
alone will prevent the emergence of a new M.B.S.-like figure who could amass
all the power and threaten the interests of the kingdom.
Arabia has had the time and the money to transform itself into a modern state
that respects basic human rights and freedoms, but it has avoided that path. In
the past, citizens and some royals have sought rudimentary forms of political
representation but calls for constitutional monarchy have landed its proponents
in prison. There is little hope of change.
Salman will never voluntarily push for such a change without serious pressure
from inside and outside the country. Given the support he has from the West,
especially President Trump, most Western governments might be happy to see
another acronym emerge as the new face of the kingdom to absorb the global
outrage over Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder.
M.B.S. and moving toward a constitutional monarchy might seem like wishful
thinking at the moment, but these two steps might save Saudi Arabia from more
serious upheaval and possible implosion from within in the future.
al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at London School of Economics, is the editor
of “Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia.”
to “The Argument,” a new Opinion podcast with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg
and David Leonhardt
columnists discuss Jamal Khashoggi’s killing with Tom Friedman, and debate the
repercussions of Trump’s foreign policy on global democracies.
Ms. Rasheed is a historian of Saudi Arabia.