PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Saudi Arabia Decides Who Will Lead Kingdom


The death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has thrown a harsh light on Saudi Arabia and on its powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. U.S. intelligence officials believe he is involved with the killing, which happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. While the crown prince seems to have survived the fallout for now, the iron-clad lock once appeared to have on the kingship is no longer a sure thing, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It's Saudi Arabia's sprawling royal family that decides who runs the kingdom, and its inner workings are opaque. So anyone on the outside has to look for signals or past experiences to gauge how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is doing in the wake of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia after the 9/11 attacks, thinks at the moment the crown prince is vulnerable.

ROBERT JORDAN: He is, I think, on thinner ice that he would have expected to be and has alienated many of the senior members of the royal family.

NORTHAM: Jordan says the crown prince's association with the Khashoggi killing comes on top of a series of questionable and high-profile moves that have hurt Saudi Arabia's reputation.

JORDAN: The incarceration of the royals and businessmen in The Ritz-Carlton, the very ill-advised war in Yemen, the ill-advised blockade of Qatar, and you can go on and on. Now, all of these are projects owned by, personally, by the crown prince, and they've been failures.

NORTHAM: Rachel Bronson is the author of "Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia." She says Crown Prince Mohammed has clearly shown he's not ready for the power his father, the king, has given him.

RACHEL BRONSON: As long as he's there, there's always going to be big question marks around his abilities.

NORTHAM: Bronson says key members of the royal family are undoubtedly talking about finding a replacement to the crown prince.

BRONSON: What I would put money on is that these conversations are happening and being whispered, and they're trying to figure out if they can conceivably build an alternative and they could get powerful members of the family on board with that.

NORTHAM: One name that keeps cropping up is King Salman's brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, who has returned to Saudi Arabia from London. Chas Freeman, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the early '90s, says in the past, the royal family could unite and remove an heir to the throne. But he says Crown Prince Mohammed has managed to concentrate all power into his hands.

CHAS FREEMAN: The political change that Mohammed bin Salman engineered in Saudi Arabia replaced the system which had literally dozens of powers centers holding up the entire state. It was like a table with 36 legs. You can't turn something like that over easily. Now it's a pedestal table. One push and you don't know which direction it's going to go.

NORTHAM: The aging King Salman is the one person who can choose the heir to the throne. But ambassador Freeman believes the king will continue to back the crown prince, who's commonly referred to as MBS.

FREEMAN: The problem for him comes when his father dies or abdicates and he wants to become king. MBS must be acclaimed by the family, positively endorsed with an oath of loyalty, and he's not assured of that now.

NORTHAM: Freeman says Crown Prince Mohammed still has support amongst many Saudis who like that he's allowed new freedoms in the kingdom. And he's working to repair his image. He's confident enough to travel abroad. But today, he was met by protesters in Tunisia holding up placards calling him a murderer. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.