- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2017

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The arrests in Saudi Arabia last week of more than two dozen perceived opponents of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has prompted speculation that Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman may be moving more quickly than regional analysts had predicted toward elevating his ambitious, favored son to the throne in Riyadh.

For months, rumors said the 81-year-old king may be preparing to abdicate to his favored son, who has taken on prominent roles overseeing Saudi economic and security policy over the past two years and made high-level visits to Washington, including one in May to meet with President Trump.

But some saw the crackdown against Mohammed bin Salman’s perceived opponents — including the arrests of some prominent Islamic clerics thought to be critical of him — as an indication that the crown prince’s power base is being shored up deliberately to pave the way for a speedy ascendancy.

A former high-level U.S. official in the region told The Washington Times that speculation is rampant among Western officials that the 32-year-old crown prince could be made king within weeks.

Others in the region are more circumspect.

A high-level official from the United Arab Emirates, seen as among Riyadh’s closest allies, sought to downplay the speculation. The official suggested that the rumors are driven by media hype around the young prince, who has made global headlines by calling for aggressive reforms in Saudi Arabia to diversify the economy and promote more cultural openness in the nation’s notoriously conservative society.

“I don’t think it is going to happen suddenly,” said the official, who added that it would be surprising if the throne is passed in the coming year.

The official pointed to U.S. claims that the monarch has a visit to Washington scheduled for early next year, as well as reports that he is slated to visit Moscow this fall. The official suggested that the king wouldn’t have scheduled such high-level foreign trips if abdication was imminent.

Saudi officials also have dismissed the rumors, according to the Reuters news agency, which has noted that the crown prince dominates economic, diplomatic and domestic policy in Riyadh in his current position.

“With the [older] generation having now left the scene and his main younger rivals having been removed, Mohammed is prime to enjoy a dominance over Saudi Arabia unseen since the rule of Abdulaziz, who founded the modern Saudi kingdom in the 1930s,” Perry Cammack, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Agence France-Presse news service.

Human rights groups said the sweeping arrests are a bad omen for political reform in Saudi Arabia if a transfer of power is imminent.

“These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammed bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Friday.

Central role

The crown prince played a central role in pushing the kingdom’s ongoing military intervention in Yemen as well as Riyadh’s recent push to isolate neighboring Qatar.

Saudi Arabia and three of its Arab allies — including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — accuse Qatar of sponsoring terrorism in the region.

Qatar, which is home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, has firmly denied the allegations from Riyadh, whose boycott remains in place but has failed to gain widespread support of the international community.

Qatar’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE brand as a terrorist organization, is playing heavily into the regional diplomatic spat between Riyadh and Doha and may help explain some of the recent arrests by the Saudi government.

Among those detained was Salman al-Ouda, one of Saudi Arabia’s well-known clerics. He has a following of some 14 million on Twitter and has called for reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha.

Mr. al-Ouda spoke out on Twitter after reports of a possible breakthrough in the diplomatic standoff between the two sides. “May God bring their hearts together for the good of their people,” he wrote, garnering 15,000 likes, 13,000 retweets and nearly 2,000 responses.

Within hours of his post, Saudi authorities detained the cleric, sparking a crackdown that led to the arrests of at least 30 people suspected of being Islamist sympathizers and critics of the crown prince.

In addition to Mr. al-Ouda, prominent clerics Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omary were detained. All three are outside the state-backed clerical establishment but have large online followings. Each also has a history of criticizing the government but more recently has kept silent or failed to publicly back Saudi policies — including the rift with Qatar over supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The prospect of Crown Prince Mohammed’s accelerated ascension to the throne, meanwhile, has been in the spotlight since last June, when a royal family shake-up saw King Salman promote his son in the succession order over older cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, who had briefly been considered as heir.

Mohammed bin Salman began drawing major international attention a year earlier when he became the public face for the launch of “Saudi Vision 2030” — a long-term blueprint designed to steer the kingdom’s economy through a brave new world of falling oil prices and rising competition.

Regional analysts and American intelligence sources took note that the young prince had begun wielding outsized influence over the kingdom’s secretive policymaking machine, pushing through the ruling family’s plan to privatize aspects of its state oil enterprise and spearheading the proxy war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

Mohammed bin Salman is the guy,” Ali Al-Ahmed, an analyst on Saudi politics at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, told The Washington Times earlier this year. “In Saudi Arabia, the king is basically equivalent to God, and so the absolute power that the king has is either being usurped right now or given to his favored son.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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