Saudi Arabia has denied reports that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is planning to relinquish the throne in favor of his son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
“There is no possibility whatsoever that the king will abdicate,” a senior Saudi official told Bloomberg news on condition of anonymity, noting that Saudi kings usually stay in power even when bad health prevents them from carrying out their job.
There is one precedent of a Saudi monarch stepping down while still alive. King Saud bin Abdulaziz abdicated in favor of his brother and heir, Prince Faisal, in the mid-1960s after pressure from ruling family members. The prince had already claimed broad powers to counter a financial crisis that engulfed the kingdom at the time.
Speculation of King Salman’s possible abdication surfaced last week after an Iranian news channel, Press TV, reported that the crown prince would soon ascend to the throne and King Salman would make a decision within “the next two nights.”
The Saudi official told Bloomberg that King Salman, 81, enjoys “perfect” physical and mental powers and that abdication is unthinkable.
Media reports about the monarch’s possible abdication emerged days after the Saudi government detained over 200 people, including powerful princes, businessmen and sitting ministers, in a sweep that investigators say has uncovered at least $100 billion in corruption.
Saudi experts have called the purge of top princes a move by the crown prince, Mohammad, 32, aimed at consolidating power. The purge has sidelined potential rivals as he keeps an eye on the throne. Many of the princes detained in the corruption probe were reported to have voted against Mohammad rising to crown prince in the allegiance council – a state body established in 2007 by former King Abdullah responsible for determining future succession to the throne in the Kingdom, analysts say.
Moves towards absolute monarchy?
“The Saudis have denied any abdication in pretty strong terms. But most outside observers say that the aim is to have Salman abdicate once Crown Prince Mohammad is secure enough to rule in his own right,” David Des Roches, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, told VOA. “People who are skeptical of Salman – and of Saudi Arabia – think the aim of an abdication would be to bypass the allegiance council of senior princes and ensure the crown prince takes over.”
Des Roches, however, believes that given that every credible rival to the crown prince has now been sidelined or arrested, there may not be a need to rush to abdicate.
“By now, Mohammad bin Salman has control over all the levels of power. There won’t be a popular upswing in favor of the old guys who got rich. So he can wait for his dad to die and then take over the state in title as well as in practice,” Des Roches said.
The National Defense University professor warned that while reforms are badly needed in Saudi Arabia and the “old guys who got rich off the old ways of doing business” are less likely to introduce reforms, the purge of top princes might move the country toward stricter rule.
“The concern is that the Kingdom is now shifting from Saudi Arabia to Salmani Arabia. If the crown passes down through the house of Salman, a lot of princes who have been exercising power – and getting money – will be cut off,” Des Roches said. “Instead of a consensual monarchy – for the princes, not the commoners – the Kingdom will become an absolute monarchy.”
The move against top princes and businessmen came as Saudi Arabia has stepped up its rhetoric against Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, accusing both of meddling in the Arab region affairs and supporting Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Houthis since March 2015.
Saudi Arabia last week accused Iran of committing an “act of war” when the Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh.