It’s Good To Be King

04.29.15 2:44 PM ET

Yemen's War Shakes Up the Saudi Palace

King Salman’s terror-fighting nephew becomes crown prince; the king’s ambitious son, the defense minister and the face of the fight in Yemen, is now second in line to the throne.

Less than four months after ascending the throne, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has made unprecedented changes in the line of succession that benefit his own son Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  These shifts come as Salman pursues the most assertive foreign policy in recent Saudi history.

The king removed the sitting Crown Prince Muqrin, his half brother, and promoted the third in line Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, his nephew, up to number two.  Salman made his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, the new number three.  The King also replaced the ailing foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal with a non-royal, the current ambassador to Washington,  Adel al Jubeir.  Prince Saud had been Foreign Minister since 1975.

According to the royal palace, Prince Muqrin asked to be replaced, but no reason was given.  No crown prince has ever given up the position in the history of the modern kingdom, founded in 1902.  When Salman ascended the throne in January, the press trumpeted Muqrin as heir and there was no sign he was not eager to be the next in line.  Many will assume he was asked to quit.

Speculation will be intense about why that might be.  Muqrin was a protégé of the late King Abdullah.   He is not close to Salman's branch of the family, the Sudeiris. He also appeared less enthusiastic about Salman's war in Yemen.  As a former fighter pilot Muqrin understands the limits of air power, and he may have had doubts about the wisdom of what was initially called Operation Decisive Storm, but has now become a stalemate.

The new crown prince, 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef, is famous for defeating Al Qaeda's violent attempt to overthrow the House of Saud a decade ago.  MBN, as he is known, led a four-year counter-terrorist campaign that decimated Al Qaeda in the Kingdom and drove its remnants into Yemen.  In the process MBN survived at least four assassination plots.  His father, the late Crown Prince Nayef, was so reactionary he was nicknamed the Black Prince.  But MBN studied in Oregon and with the FBI and Scotland Yard before joining the Saudi interior ministry.  He also holds the position of chairman of the Kingdom’s security and political committee coordinating all security issues.

Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, is the face of the Yemen war.  He became defense minister in January and has been constantly on Saudi TV appearing to direct the war effort and meeting with foreign leaders to win support for the campaign against the pro-Iranian Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels.  He is considered ruthlessly ambitious and is very close to his father. He has given up his position as chief of the royal court but he will undoubtedly keep control of access to the king.

Unlike most Saudi princes, MBS was not educated in the west. Instead he studied at King Saud University. There is controversy over his age, reputed to be anywhere from 29 to 34 (officially his birthday is July 24, 1980).  He is chairman of a number of young people's organizations in the Kingdom and seeks to portray himself as the leader of the next generation of Saudis.  He also chairs the powerful development and economics committee that coordinates economic policies, including oil price and supply.

In promoting his nephew and son, King Salman is passing the torch to the next generations of royals.  Since 1902 the Kingdom has been ruled by the founder of the modern Kingdom Ibn Saud Abd Al Aziz or his sons. Now, Salman will be the last son to reign.  

These changes have all been endorsed by the Allegiance Council, the committee of the sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud, but the legitimacy of selecting the next generation has been a question mark over the succession process for years.  The king hopes it is now all settled.

The late King Abdullah's own son, Prince Mitab, has kept his powerful position as commander of the Saudi National Guard.  The SANG is the family’s praetorian guard, it defends the capital, the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and the oil industry.  SANG troops have occupied Bahrain, the Kingdom’s tiny island neighbor, since the Arab Spring in 2011 to keep a minority Sunni monarchy in power.   

The new lineup is solidly pro-American but riven with doubts about American reliability.  The royals believe George W. Bush foolishly let Iran gain dominance in Iraq and fear Barack Obama is too eager for a nuclear deal with Iran and a grand rapprochement with Tehran.  Repeated assurances by Obama and concrete support for the Yemen war have not altered Saudi doubts about America.

Salman's decision to wage war in Yemen so soon after coming to the throne reflected his acute concern that Iran was gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula in what has always been the soft underbelly of Saudi Arabia, Yemen.  The Zaydi Houthi rebels are not pawns of Tehran but they did initiate direct air flights between Sanaa and Tehran early this year, offered Iran port facilities and negotiated a lucrative oil deal.  A few Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisers have been assisting the Zaydis for the last few years covertly.  From Riyadh's view Iran already dominated decision-making in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, it does not want a fourth Arab capital to be aligned with Tehran.

But Salman's intense effort to secure wide Islamic backing for the war has been less than a success.  Oman, Yemen's other neighbor, has opted not to join with the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the fighting, instead staying on the sidelines.  The Pakistani parliament voted unanimously to keep neutral and rebuff repeated Saudi requests for ground troops to aid the war effort.  Pakistani officials have privately suggested Salman panicked into the war without a viable strategy to get the Houthis out of Sanaa.  Even Egypt, which benefits from billions in GCC aid, has opted not to send troops. although it's navy is supporting the Saudi blockade of Yemen.

The Yemen war is part Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry, part the unfinished business of the Arab Spring revolutions and part sectarian Sunni-Shia animosity.  It is above all the Salmans’ war, father and son together.  The surprise elevation of MBN and MBS underscores how the stakes in this war are crucial, not only to Yemen's future but increasingly to the future of the House of Saud.