Putting the Saudi "coup letters" in context

In September, several international news outlets reported on a set of letters, written by a member of the Saudi royal family (known in Arabic as Al Saud, the House of Saud), calling on the entire family to overthrow King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. None of these outlets, however, has published an English translation of the letters. We're doing so here for the first time. These letters deal only briefly with the war in Yemen, but the war--and the larger trend of military adventurism--is one of the author's major grievances with the Salman regime. You can download the full English text of the letters here. Below are some choice excerpts, followed by commentary on the letters by journalist and Chatham House Fellow Peter Salisbury.

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In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.

An urgent alarm call to all the Al Saud

The peace and compassion and blessings of God be upon you.

All praise to God, Lord of the universe, and God’s peace and blessings be upon His most noble messenger.

This is advice and an alarm call to all the sons and grandsons of the Founder, the late King Abdulaziz, who receive this letter....

The Founder brought us up on a set of principles that maintain authority, strengthen the state, and keep a balance in the country between the ruler and the ruled. We learned from him that maintaining authority requires that power should be held only by the oldest and most suitable, and that they should make the others share in their decision-making; that the character of the state should remain Islamic and pure; not to compromise the application of Sharia; to respect religious scholars and preserve their role in society; and to value notables.

The late Founder also taught us not to mix authority with business, to take our share of public money formally and not stretch out our hands in cheating, deception or fraud, what is now known as corruption and embezzlement. We also learned from him to adhere to good morals and religious correctness, and when plagued with something, not to shout about it, or be defiant. We learned to give people their value, to behave modestly in the majlis, and to accept advice; not to turn down a petitioner, not to close the door, not to reject those who ask, not to let down the oppressed, not to help the oppressor.

Some of these recommendations began to be neglected, and the wise men did not react to stop those who breached them, which lead to compromise in the rest leading to neglect of all the recommendations. We came near to collapse of the state and loss of authority. Disaster is closing upon us and others. The last of the neglected recommendations was marginalising the elders and the experienced, and handing over authority to juveniles and foolish dreamers who act behind the facade of an incompetent king....

How for example did we accept that the sons of Abdulaziz should be marginalised both in power and in participation in decision-making? How did we accept, passively and without intervening, the King’s mental condition which renders him unqualified to continue in authority? How did we accept that a person close to the King should dominate the country politically and economically, and leave him to make plans at his will?

Furthermore, how did we accept a foreign policy that weakens our people’s trust in us and incites the peoples of other countries against us? How did we accept engaging in uncalculated military risks, such as the military alliance to strike Iraq and Syria, and the Yemen war? How did we accept that our fate should be hostage to the whims of adolescents and impetuous caprice?...

Thirteen sons of King Abdulziz are still alive, and between them they possess great competence and experience, particularly Princes Talal bin Abdulaziz, Turki bin Abdulaziz and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz with their great ability and well-known political and administrative experience which should be harnessed in the interest of religion, the Holy Places, and the people.

The abovementioned three in particular and all thirteen sons of the Founder in general should carry the banner, gather consensus, and assemble the ranks of the House of Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Faisal al-Saud, led by the oldest and best of them and their capable sons—who are a treasure imperishable if God wills—to act and remove all three, the incapable King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the negligent, impetuous and arrogant Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and the thief, corrupt, destroyer of the nation Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—just as King Faisal, his brothers, and their sons and cousins did when they removed King Saud—so that the best and oldest can take charge of the affairs of the country and its people....[/box]

Read the full text of the letters here.

I asked journalist and Chatham House Fellow Peter Salisbury a few questions to help us gauge the importance of these letters in the context of internal Saudi politics.

YPP: How much importance should we ascribe to these letters? Assuming the author isn't capable of pulling off an actual coup, what, if any, change can other members of the royal family hope to achieve? Salisbury: The surprise with these letters isn’t that they have appeared; it’s that it has taken so long for them to do so.

When King Salman appointed two members of his Sudairi branch of the family, his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef and his favourite son Mohammed bin Salman, who may have been as young as 29 at the time, as first and second in line to the throne, it sent shock waves across the Saud family [Will's note: "Sudairi" refers to the descendants of King Abdulaziz and Hussa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi, including the so-called "Sudairi Seven," the most powerful grouping of Abdulaziz's many sons].

At the time, a lot of reports on the appointments  focused on generational change - it was the first time in Saudi Arabia’s modern history that one of Abdulaziz al-Saud’s grandchildren rather than sons had been made crown prince - and on the youth of his son after years of septuagenarian crown princes. But the bigger issue for the Al Saud was that King Salman had concentrated current and future power in the Kingdom in the hands of one branch of the family. Some analysts described the move as being, in effect, a palace coup, with the King also setting his son up as future monarch. The author of the letter is fairly clear on this point: “How… did we accept that the sons of Abdulaziz should be marginalised both in power and in participation in decision-making?” he writes.

So the rest of the family  - the descendants of Abdulaziz’s other sons - were unsurprisingly unhappy. But the King's war in Yemen and the young Prince became very popular in the early months of King Salman’s reign, thanks in no small part to glowing domestic media coverage. It would have been very risky indeed to publicly criticize King Salman or the Mohammeds. Eight months in to King Salman’s reign, it looks like the author of the letter has exhausted internal channels for expressing his frustrations and has turned to the Western media, which has by and large been very critical of the war in Yemen and tends to be pretty critical of the House of Saud and the West’s relationship with the regime.

That makes the letter feel a bit like a desperate last attempt to get King Salman to reverse course on the succession issue, by someone trying to carve out a political space for themselves. It’s interesting to see this happen, and critics of the Saudi regime will of course latch on to it but I am not sure what impact if any it will have on the actual internal workings of the state, especially given that the concentration of power within the Sudairi family is continuing apace (the author talks about mixing ‘authority with business’ which is a pretty clear attack on the deputy crown prince -  a lot of the letter is an attack on hism - who has taken a big role in managing the economy, took over the lucrative position of head of the Royal Court, and has been accused of redirecting a lot of business and patronage to his own inner circle, which is in reality fairly standard practice when a new King takes over).

I could be wrong of course, but this isn’t actually the first time something like this has happened and in general the impact has been pretty limited. The author seems to recognize this: “[T]ime goes by quickly, and each day that passes makes it more difficult to grip the matter than the day before”, he wrote in September, and two months on we haven’t seen any movement.

YPP: In addition to King Salman, the letters call out Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Nayef in particular. Is it accurate to view the two Mohammeds as allies/partners, or do they each have different agendas? In other words, would Mohammed bin Salman be likely to retain his current position of power in the event of Salman's death? Salisbury: First, a disclaimer: a lot of analysis of the inner working of the House of Saud tends to devolve into Kremlinology - people trying to derive meaning from what little information emerges from inside the Palace (well, the Palaces but you get what I mean). So what I am providing here is my best educated guess.

As far as the two Mohammeds - MbN and MbS, as they are known - are concerned, it’s worth remembering that MbN was a widely acclaimed figure in the Saudi media in the past and that he has been seen as the US’ favorite Prince since the turn of the millennium thanks to his role in taking on Al Qaeda inside the Kingdom. Now we’re seeing him being eclipsed in media terms by MbS and it is difficult to know if that's a choice and he’s taking a knee, staying out of the limelight, and if so why - because he isn’t happy with the Yemen war (as many suggest)? - or because he doesn’t have much of a choice; or as some people suggest because he is happy to give his young cousin enough rope to hang himself with. But either way, MbS has become incredibly visible in the Saudi press while MbN is a much quieter figure these days.

Nevertheless MbN is in a strong position to become a very popular King: he’s young enough to have a few decades on the throne and if he succeeds Salman will be the first of his generation to become King. He is likely to be wary of MbS, who is in the process of gathering an awful lot of power around himself with respect to not just the military but also the economy. So theoretically it might make sense for MbN to do what King Salman did and completely change the line of succession. But they are from the same branch of the family, and I suspect that the Sudairis as a unit will be keen for the two Mohammeds to remain on friendly terms to ensure that power is concentrated within the family for the foreseeable future. A lot, of course, depends on how long of a reign King Salman has, how various aspects of current foreign policy play out, and how the oil price and economy fare in the next five years or so. YPP: What other important groupings or factions exist within the royal family, and how might their priorities differ from the current ruling faction? Salisbury: Basically, the other factions are the remaining sons of Abdulaziz and the sons of his children, particularly the offspring of former Kings and senior Princes, who are worried that their branches of the family may be robbed of their inheritance - i.e. a fair shot at the throne in the future. Abdulaziz had an estimated 45 sons and a similar number of daughters so being a Saudi Prince is a bit like like having the surname Smith in the UK or US.

The author of the letter mentions a number of the most prominent former Kings and Princes - Saud, Faisal, Khaled, Fahd, Nayef - while taking a swipe at the previous King, Abdullah, and at  Salman so I think it’s fair to guess he isn’t from either of these branches of the family. It’s also interesting that he refers to the 13 living sons of Abdulaziz and puts forward a list of potential candidates for King who are fairly low-key and would likely not overstep the mark when it comes to marginalising the rest of the family.
The issue for the rest of the al-Saud is that if the Sudairis become the only branch of the family who are considered for succession, everyone else will become increasingly removed from the levers of the state and hence prime opportunities to receive and distribute patronage.  That means their influence and power will be eroded, and that their ability to angle for future posts or crown prince roles will also be limited. So the issue really is one of being marginalized in the long term, and of a power-grab by a single branch of the family, which in and of itself is seen by many Princes as breaking the rules.