Coup Watch on MBS
Most people have a vague understanding of what a coup is. According to Dictionary.com, a coup is a sudden, violent, and unlawful seizure of power from a government. I'm not saying I know when or if a coup is occurring, but the circumstances are ripening for such an event in Saudi Arabia. If one is to happen, then I think it will be soon. If no coup, then all is well in the world of geopolitics between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The Players in the Monarchy
The first player is the current king of the Saudi monarchy, King Salman. Salman is one of 36 sons of the founding king, King Abdulaziz, of the modern Saudi nation. Since Abdulaziz chose his first son as the crown prince in 1933, each king has chosen a brother, not a son, to pass on the crown. Compare that to the British throne, where regality is passed from father to son. Salman, at 86, was one of Abdulaziz's youngest sons. His choice of brothers was running thin, and he opted to pass the crown down to a brother's son, his nephew.
The nephew was Mohammad bin Nayef, who is known as MBN. MBN was appointed crown prince in 2015. As a spymaster and security chief, MBN led the country's domestic war against al-Qaeda and, in the process, became well acquainted with counterparts in London and Washington. Foreign governments considered MBN a safe pick; he was in his mid-50s thus old enough to make mature decisions. Even Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief at the time, awarded him a medal for his counter-terrorism efforts. He was a proven fighter against terrorism, had experience handling large budgets and large departments, and earned respect from his peers in other countries.
In 2017, King Salman fired MBN and named his 31-year-old son as crown prince. Mohammad bin Salman, nicknamed MBS, will be the first crown prince to accede to the throne following his father's footsteps. In the meantime, MBS has made it a point to take control over the reins of daily operations. Some events you may have heard of; In 2017, he rounded up hundreds of members of his own family and imprisoned them in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel on informal corruption charges. Even MBN is still under house arrest. The CIA claims MBS ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. He has allowed women to drive and dress freely as they do in Dubai and Qatar. He has legalized cinemas and concerts, tamped down the religious police, and sought relations with Israel.
MBS has a law degree from King Saud University. He not only knows western law but sharia as well. In an Islamic country, the nominal rulers call in the ulema, the religious scholars, to pass a fatwa, a legal ruling to get things done. MBS is probably one of the few people in high places who knows anything about Islamic epistemology and jurisprudence and can pass a fatwa himself. His view of Islam is akin to a traditionalist following laws based on the Qur'an and sunnah, but not the hadith. In my book, Muslim Mechanics, I discuss the weak foundations of hadith. MBS follows that viewpoint which opens up sharia to be more tolerant than most Muslims are used to. It will be interesting to see how his people accept his vision of Islam.
MBS has emerged as a rogue, a reformer, and a maverick who bucks traditional business practices. He is promoting several mega projects in his desert kingdom (see "A Skyscraper, 105 Miles Long, 150 Stories Tall," Nov 5, 2022). He needs capital investment and technology to make it all come together. His strategy is to sell lots of oil for many, many years to come. Consequently, this need for money has pushed the envelope too far and caused much concern.
Fifty years ago, President Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, negotiated with the Saudis that their oil would be sold only for dollars to other countries who wanted to purchase oil. This oil-for-dollars transaction ensured a high demand for dollars on the world market, making the US currency the world's reserve currency. Everybody had to use dollars to purchase oil. In return, the US would become a long-term oil purchaser and provide military protection and oil-field technology. Over the 50 years since Kissinger's deal, the US currency has remained the global reserve, and the Saudi family has amassed a fortune but nothing to show for it. MBS is trying to reverse that outcome by pursuing mega projects in the Saudi desert.
Reasons for a Coup
1. 2017 was Trump's first year as President. It was also MBS's first year as crown prince. Trump and MBS hit it off. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, became Trump's personal envoy to the Crown Prince. Trump's support for MBS after the Khashoggi incident saved him. All the intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, and NSA) were telling Trump that MBS had bloody hands. The intel agencies preferred MBN anyway, and they thought this was the opportunity to get him back in position as the crown prince. Trump never did get along with the intelligence agencies, and a coup would be a way to get back at Trump.
2. The Biden administration has clarified that its goal is to reduce carbon consumption. Even though the US has enormous carbon resources, Biden has tried to minimize the mining, drilling, and fracking of national resources. These actions to reduce carbon consumption have caused prices to increase, adding pain to Biden's eight percent inflation headache. In August 2022, Biden visited the Saudi Kingdom (remember the fist bump between Biden and MBS), and while numerous agreements were signed, it was clear that Biden wanted MBS to pump more oil so that the prices in the US would go down, right before the mid-term elections. MBS did not pump more oil, and the prices didn't go down. What good is an insolent Saudi prince if he doesn't do your bidding?
3. One of the US's long-term goals is to rely more on green energy and reduce carbon harvesting. This does not fit with the Saudi goal of pumping more oil over an extended period.
4. In December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia. China is the world's largest oil consumer, and Saudi Arabia is China's largest supplier. Rumors were rampant that China would shift to paying in Chinese yuan, but there was no announcement that the petrodollar agreement was being abandoned. When that happens, we will witness the US dollar's devaluation and possible removal as the world's reserve currency. If the ABC agencies anticipate that announcement, they will act to keep it from happening.
5. Saudi Arabia has applied to join both BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, organizations favoring commerce with eastern bloc countries. Its possible Saudi Arabia will conduct trade for other commodities in other currencies. This action would also undermine the US dollar. In other words, the US currency would lose much value.
6. There is one other reason that a coup might occur. Saudi Arabia purchases more weapons from the US than any other country. The Saudis bought $350 billion of tanks, ships, radar, communications, and technology in the last ten years. Two hundred retired generals, colonels, majors, captains, and enlisted personnel are stationed in Arabia as trainers and advisors. Saudi Arabia is a gold mine for the defense industry. Should MBS mention his desire to diversify with the Chinese or the Russians, the undercover agencies might pursue another leader, one more friendly to the US.
MBS knows he is sitting on a precipice and is probably doing things to secure his future. Then again, the US intelligence agencies are no dummies, and they can see the writing on the wall. There is friction between the two countries. If MBS knows this outcome is likely, he is probably moving slowly, deliberately, and with much caution. A pragmatic approach is to ensure that the reforms he has instituted stick and that the changes in Saudi culture become irreversible despite whoever follows in his footsteps. Much like a Shakespearean play, the narrative will be diabolical and unpredictable.
Photo credit to Wikipedia Commons. MBS to the left, MBN to the right, with secretary of State John Kerry in between, 2 years before the palace coup.