Power struggle may arise in Saudi Arabia after Mohammad bin Salman's promotion

  • A power struggle in Saudi Arabia cannot be ruled out following the promotion of deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman to crown prince, analysts said.

The elevation of Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman to crown prince, a position that places the 31 year old next in line to the throne, could be met with resistance at home.

Announced by a royal decree published by state news agency SPA on Wednesday, bin Salman's promotion comes at the expense of 57 year-old crown prince and interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef, who has been relieved of all positions, SPA said.

A potentially violent power struggle in the future cannot be ruled out as it's not clear whether bin Nayef will go quietly, Peter Sluglett, visiting research professor at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore, told CNBC on Wednesday.

"Generally speaking, the (royal) succession has proceeded in a fairly orderly manner, first through sons of the Kingdom's founder Abdulaziz and then to grandsons more or less in order of age, so this is quite a shocker in terms of precedence."

Bin Salman, one of the King's 12 sons, has been making international waves over the past year, with his Vision 2030 statement and the related National Transformation Plan — a program aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy away from energy over the next decade. He was also deemed a key player in Riyadh's decision to isolate Qatar amid allegations that Doha's ruling family supported terrorism.

Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Dursun Aydemir | Andalou Agency | Getty Images
Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Bin Nayef, meanwhile, has maintained a low profile since his accession to the nation's number-two post and the contrast between his quiet attitude and his cousin's high profile has been widely commented on at home, the Brookings Institution said in a 2016.

Known for his work as Saudi's counter-terror chief, bin Nayef still maintains a loyal following within the state apparatus, so it was not immediately clear whether he would comply with the royal decree or launch a soft coup in retaliation.

Because bin Salman's tapping as the Kingdom's next leader comes before King Salman's death, that could cause further divisions within the royal family and lead to a contested royal succession turning violent, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in May in response to speculation about a possible promotion for the young prince.

"His growing portfolio of responsibilities, which ranges from defense minister to head of the economic council, has been gained at the expense of more senior members of the royal family, reportedly causing considerable resentment," the think-tank warned in that note.

Whether or not bin Salman's succession turns into a more serious matter will depend on the success of recent domestic reform initiatives, the note continued.