The Bible’s book of Galatians, VI teaches, «as you sow, so shall you reap». And for Saudi Arabia, which has overtly and covertly supported rebellions in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia, Philippines, and Lebanon that have led to civil wars and inter-religious strife, the day of reckoning may soon be at hand. The present Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, is the last of the sons of the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz al Saud, who will ever sit on the Saudi throne. After Salman dies, Saudi leadership will pass to a new generation of Saudi royals. But not all the descendants of the first Saudi king are happy about how the future succession may turn out.
Salman named his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince after firing his half-brother, Mugrin bin Abdul Aziz, as crown prince after the death of King Abdullah in 2015. For good measure, Salman also named his son, Mohammad bin Salman, who is little-known outside the kingdom, as deputy prime minister. The 30-year old Mohammad bin Salman is seen by some as the eventual crown prince after King Salman figures out some way to ease Mohammad bin Nayef, the Interior Minister and close friend of the United States, out of the position of heir apparent to the throne.
More and more power has been concentrated into Mohammad bin Salman’s hands, including control over the Defense Ministry, the Council of Economy and Development, and the Saudi government-owned Arabian-American oil company (ARAMCO). The deputy crown prince and defense minister is the architect of Saudi Arabia’s genocidal military campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and continued Saudi support for jihadist guerrillas in Syria and Iraq, as well as military support for the Wahhabist royal regime in Bahrain in its bloody suppression of the Shi’a Muslim majority population. Mohammad bin Salman is also the major force in Saudi Arabia seeking a military confrontation with Iran.
There is a schism within the Saudi royal family that has created a real-life «Game of Thrones» within the kingdom. The first Saudi king had between 37 and 44 sons from a harem of 22 wives. One of these sons, 85-year old Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, also known as the «Red Prince» for his support for a national constitution and Western-style rule of law separated from Muslim sharia law, is suspicious about the concentration of power in the hands of Salman’s family, which comes at the expense of the other princes with a political claim inside the monarchy. Prince Talal is not alone.
Power in Saudi Arabia has generally resided with the seven sons of King Abdulaziz and Hassa bin Ahmed, which include present King Salman. These sons are commonly known as the «Sudairi Seven». They included the late King Fahd; the late Crown Princes Sultan and Nayef; the former deputy defense ministers Abdul Rahman and Turki and Interior Minister Ahmed, all removed from succession; and King Salman. In addition to the families of the other sons of the Saudi founder, the families of the «Sudairi Six», minus Salman’s family, are intensely jealous of the power being conveyed to deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. When Salman dies, many observers of secretive Saudi royal politics expect to see a succession battle that might even result in a royal civil war.
And a civil war among competing Saudi royals can easily become one between various Saudi regions. Thus, the fracturing of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen brought about by Saudi adventurism may come back to haunt the Saudis in a major way.
The first Saudi region that can be expected to take advantage of a Saudi royal family split is the Eastern Region, which is known formally as the Eastern Province and is ruled by Saud bin Nayef, a son of the late Crown Prince Nayef from the provincial capital of Dammam. When King Abdullah died in 2015, Saud bin Nayef was passed over for Crown Prince by his younger brother, Mohammad bin Nayef. Although both brothers are nephews of King Salman, Saud may still harbor a resentment against his uncle for stripping him of the chance to become king. A full-blown Saudi civil war may begin in the Eastern Region, which is not only the center of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry with thousands of expatriate workers, but also the home to what may be either a slim majority or very significant minority of Shi’a Muslims.
The Saudi government has never wanted to conduct a religious census of the country because it might not like the results, especially in the Eastern Province. In 2009, popular Shi’a leader Nimr Baqir al-Nimr was arrested by Saudi authorities for advancing the idea that the Eastern Region should secede from Saudi Arabia. In 2015, amid an international outcry of condemnation for its action, Saudi Arabia executed al-Nimr. Expect the Eastern Region to the first to openly revolt against the Saudi government in the event the current «Game of Thrones» turns into a «War of Thrones».
The next region to revolt against the monarchy would be Asir, the southwest area that borders northern Yemen, in addition to two neighboring Saudi regions. Asir is the home to a significant minority of Zaidi Muslims. The Saudi regime has been waging a genocidal campaign against the Asir Zaidis’ cousins on the Yemeni side of the border, the Houthi rebels, who are also Zaidis.
Houthi rebels have launched several military attacks, including missile barrages, on Saudi targets in Asir, as well as the Saudi border regions of Jizan and Najran, in the hope that they might ignite a Zaidi uprising in the southern Saudi regions. There have been reports during the Yemeni civil war that Houthi forces seized, at least temporarily, a few Saudi villages in Asir, Najran, and Jizan. Open rebellions by Zaidis in Asir, Najran, and Jizan, along with a Shi’a rebellion in the Eastern region, may be too much for the Saudi armed forces to handle, especially if it is split along competing allegiances to rival princes and throne claimants.
Intervention in a Saudi civil war by the United States and NATO would be guaranteed to result in a costly outcome for the West in terms of body bags, sabotage of oil installations, and a multi-billion-dollar financial drain. The probability that Yemen would see the restoral of an independent South Yemen and a battle for control of northern Yemen between Houthis and remnants of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government would entail Western troops also engaging in a protracted civil war in another huge chunk of the Arabian Peninsula. Even the most-warlike members of the Donald Trump administration would likely not want to become mired in a major Arabian imbroglio.
Widespread conflict in Saudi Arabia might also result in the regions of Mecca and Medina becoming an independent entity with the primary responsibility of protecting the Islamic holy places and ensuring safe access for Muslim pilgrims. The Organization of Islamic Conference and other non-Wahhabi influenced Islamic organizations may become vehicles by which the two holy cities are governed as a «neutral zone» unaffected by Saudi turmoil and Wahhabist religious radicalism.
Other regions of Saudi Arabia that would likely spin off include the Northern Borders region adjacent to Iraq and Tabuk, which lies along the southern Jordanian border and the Gulf of Aqaba. Tabuk might seek some form of security protection from both Jordan and Israel to remain aloof from armed confrontation between Saudi factions. The Northern Borders region might seek a similar accommodation with Iraq.
The real battle for control of Saudi Arabia would be mostly centered in Riyadh province, for the keys to the kingdom, or what remains of it, would be found in control of the Saudi capital city of Riyadh. In any event, a Saudi civil war would be best left to the regional actors to sort things out. Any outside intervention would certainly make matters much worse and could develop into a wider regional or world war.
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