January 1, 2016 1:00 pm JST
Saudi royal succession

Tensions in ruling family could bring more chaos to Mideast, oil market

HIROFUMI MATSUO, Nikkei senior staff writer

OPEC members failed to come up with an effective response to plunging oil prices at a meeting in Vienna on Dec. 4.

TOKYO -- The question of the royal succession in Saudi Arabia looms over large over the Middle East and the world, given the kingdom's influence over two major goeopolitical issues: the continuing slide in crude oil prices and the rise of the Islamic State militant group.

     As the most powerful voice in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the custodian of the Islamic holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia's actions matter in the region and beyond. The country's response to collapsing oil prices and the chaos in Syria shows the growing influence of a young prince. This could lead to pushback from other royals and instability in the country.

     Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, estimated age of 30, took his current title in April as his father, Salman bin Abdulaziz, ascended the throne. In the months since, the prince has gained considerable power. He now serves as defense minister and head of the country's top policymaking body for matters related to oil, economic development and education.

     Control over state-run oil company Saudi Arabian Oil has been transferred from the oil ministry to a council chaired by the prince. This has given him considerable sway over oil policy.

     Russia, a leading non-OPEC oil producer and ally of Syria, holds a more important strategic position in the world than it did a few years ago. Representing his country, Mohammed bin Salman met Russian President Vladimir Putin at least twice in 2015. The prince is also said to have played a leading role in Saudi Arabia's military intervention in neighboring Yemen.

Struggle at the top

Mohammed bin Salman's growing influence over the country's defense, economic and oil policies is creating tension in the ruling elite. The kingdom's diplomacy is "shifting toward more impulsive, interventionist policies," according to a recent German intelligence report. Riyadh is seeking to bolster its influence in the Arab world as the prince gains more power. This has damaged the country's relations with allies, the report said.

     About the same time the report was released, a U.K. newspaper published what it claimed was a letter from a member of the Saudi royal family. The letter criticized the reign of King Salman and his son, and called for fellow royals to push for a different prince to be appointed third in line to the throne. The letter's authenticity has not been confirmed, but "it is rare for such disunity to be brought out in the open. Something is definitely going on," one Saudi Arabia watcher said.

     All six Saudi monarchs since Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom, have been chosen from among his sons. Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef are the third-generation royals, grandchildren of the first king.

     The deputy crown prince is known as a reformer who advocates cutting government subsidies and creating more jobs for the kingdom's citizens. The rapid concentration of power in his hands could easily lead to a backlash from other members of the royal family, which is said to number several thousand.

     "The current situation is unsustainable. Some form of correction will inevitably come from among the royals, sooner of later," one expert said.

Mounting challenges

Saudi Arabia has several troubled neighbors, including Syria and Iraq to the north and Yemen to the south. With IS and other radical Islamist groups gaining sway in the war-torn region, the country's top priority is to stop radical Islamism from spreading inside its borders.

     Half the Saudi population is under 24. Disaffected youth can be easy targets for radicalization. To see off that threat, the government has invested heavily in job creation, education and infrastructure. But plunging oil prices have blown a hole in the budget, putting these programs at risk.

     The Saudi government still has huge financial assets at its disposal, but even those could be depleted within the next five years if it continues to spend at the current pace, the International Monetary Fund has warned.

     Falling oil prices are a real concern, but a weakened OPEC could not even agree on a production target at its most recent meeting in Vienna on Dec. 4. If Saudi Arabia becomes unstable, the problems in the oil market and the Middle East will become even more grave. The international community will have to keep a close eye on the generational power shift in the kingdom.

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