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  January 21, 2016

Who is Really Ruling Saudi Arabia?

Bilal Ahmed of says the rivalry results from the fact that the King's nephew Mohammad bin Nayef is currently the minister of interior and also the crown prince
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Bilal Zenab Ahmed is the associate editor of He is also a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London.


SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Following the death of the former king of Saudi Arabia, who was a rather good friend of George W. Bush, a new king, King Salman, took over the kingdom. Just nine months into his reign, however, in September of 2015, a senior Saudi prince launched an unprecedented challenge, calling for a change in the country's leadership. Saudi Arabia, he said, faced its biggest challenges in years, with the war in Yemen, plummeting oil prices, and criticism of its management of Mecca. And I think we can add to that at this point the Saudi involvement in supporting the rebels against Syria's Assad and recent executions of cleric Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others.

The prince, campaigning against the king, is one of the grandsons of the state's founder, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. He told the Guardian that there is disquiet among the royal family, and among the wider public, at the leadership of King Salman, who ascended to the throne in January. He indicated that the king is not well, and that the king's nephew, Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, is calling all the shots and is responsible for the disastrous management of the matters of the state.

Let's find out more about all of this. For that I'm being joined by Bilal Ahmed. He's coming to us from London. Bilal is with, and a Ph.D. student at SOAS in London. Thank you so much for joining us, Bilal.

BILAL AHMED: Glad to be here, Sharmini.

PERIES: So Bilal, so I guess the big question is if King Salman is not running the country, who is?

AHMED: Well, he is running the country, at least in a diplomatic sense. But it seems to be the case that his son, who is Prince Salman, who is the deputy crown prince, has a great deal of power, in addition to Mohammad bin Nayef, who is his nephew and the grandson of King Abdul Aziz, who is the founder of Saudi Arabia. So it seems that the current king isn't exactly in control of most segments of state affairs. His son controls Aramco, and much of the defense ministry, and his nephew controls much of the other [stuff] that's going on.

So as you can see, it's quite a lot of power that's centralized in his family tree. But not enough in him personally, which is a large part of the reason why there's so much discontent, because those people in his family that are controlling a great deal of important ministries in Saudi Arabia, including the defense ministry, including the state-owned oil company Aramco, are quite young.

PERIES: Bilal, give us a sense of who the crown prince is, and its role, responsibilities, in the state of Saudi Arabia. And also, the deputy crown prince, in terms of their role, responsibilities, and their capabilities to actually govern.

AHMED: Many of the roles in the Saudi monarchy and in the Saudi government have been changing as of late and have historically been changing as for the requirements of the historical situation and as per the requirements of the kingdom at the time, that you have new people and have in these posts. So that's why you have so many members of the Saudi royal family, that inhabits multiple posts simultaneously. That's why you can have, for example, a deputy crown prince that is also running Aramco, which is the case with King Salman's son. But you can also have a crown prince that's the minister of the interior, as the case with Muhammad bin Nayef, who is King Salman's nephew and is currently the minister of interior and also the crown prince.

So this is really up to the king, and it's really up to the family that's in charge of the kingdom at a certain time, and what it wants to achieve with each particular person, and how it understands each of these specific roles. We have to remember that Saudi Arabia is run by a monarchy, and a monarchy has flexibility like this in determining what these types of roles mean in a context like Saudi Arabia. So while you do have official and unofficial roles that are attached to these posts, I think that's actually the wrong way of understanding it. I think the right way of understanding it is looking towards the various concerns that Saudi Arabia has at a given time, because those frame what are done with the posts, not the other way around.

PERIES: Bilal, one great contradiction we see between King Salman and, let's say, who is now taking a greater role in governing and ruling Saudi Arabia, one indicator of the discrepancies is that when King Salman came to Washington, just about the time the deal with Iran was being sealed in terms of the nuclear agreement, the king actually agreed to, with President Obama, they would actually acknowledge this agreement. And in fact, they made some public statements about it.

But upon returning home, both in terms of the proxy wars being fought out with Iran, both in Yemen and Syria, seemed to just continue as if that conversation never happened. What do you make of that?

AHMED: Well, what I make of it is that even if Saudi is willing to have some sense of rapprochement with Iran, we have to remember that the kingdom is experiencing, as I've said before, a large number of ongoing difficulties that don't seem to be abetting anytime soon. That includes the collapsing price of oil, but it also includes the fact that there's quite a lot of discontent at home, both within the royal family and in the liberal, unofficial opposition, as well as among the domestic labor force.

But also in terms of Saudi allies, in the rest of the Persian Gulf, this is more or less because of the war in Yemen, which the deputy crown prince, who as you recall is King Salman's son, he seemed to indicate, at least in his statements and at least in his diplomacy with the rest of the GCC, the Gulf monarchies, that this war wouldn't actually be taking this long and that it wouldn't necessarily result in the increased death count for many of these kingdoms, as is coming to pass. And we have to remember that these kingdoms have never actually fought a war like this before. The only other time that I can recall that the GCC has formally intervened anywhere has been, was in Bahrain. And Bahrain wasn't actually a war, Bahrain was an attempt to crush a democratic protest movement.

So you have, suddenly, Qatari or Emirati soldiers dying in Yemen for a war that is ill-defined, but they are also dying at the behest of a coalition that was assembled by Saudi Arabia, and it was assembled by King Salman's family and the interests of his nephew, as far as the future and stability of Saudi Arabia are concerned. So as a result of all that you have suddenly a need to take more drastic action to stabilize the regime both domestically, as well as stabilize its international ties. And this could be a power play aimed at ensuring that Saudi Arabia has these options and has these allegiances going forward.

PERIES: Right. So let's take the Paris climate talks, and how Saudi Arabia was represented. So who represented Saudi Arabia, and do we know what their basic knowledge base was in terms of the climate change and ruling a country that is largely dependent on oil?

AHMED: Well, the, there were a couple of different Saudi Arabian representatives. The highest ranking official that was there was Ali Ibn Ibrahim al-Naimi, who is the Saudi Arabian minister of petroleum and mineral resources. And I think we are, I think we have to pay attention to the fact that he was probably sent at least in part because he--because of his role as someone who isn't being primed for state power, which is the case for the deputy crown prince, who is in control of Aramco right now. They probably didn't want the deputy crown prince to be subjected to that level of embarrassment at the COP21 talks.

But it also reflects the fact that he was sent in part because Saudi Arabia wasn't really taking the talks seriously, and didn't seriously want to negotiate an end to its centrality, as far as the global oil market is concerned. So you have in this case someone who isn't a member of the close inner circle of King Salman's section of the royal family being sent to the COP21 talks, explicitly because they didn't want to take the talk seriously.

PERIES: All right, Bilal. This is just one indication of the kind of coverage we are going to be doing on an ongoing basis in terms of unpacking Riyadh. Thank you so much for joining us.

AHMED: You're welcome.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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