Saudi Arabia has plunged its immediate region into major strategic uncertainty. What can only be described as a serious outbreak of shooting in the Royal Palace in Riyadh on April 21, 2018, was the catalyst for events which could determine the fate of the Crown, the Kingdom, and the regional competition, particularly with Iran, for influence.
By June 1, 2018, however, the crisis seemed to be subsiding.
The delicacy of the situation posed serious questions for Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the US, in particular, in shaping their strategies, given that it raised serious questions over energy supply, the war in Yemen, control of the Red Sea, and the Eurasia-Africa links in the PRC’s Silk Route network. It is clear that the Saudi Government, controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, itself was, even by early June 2018, uncertain how the situation would evolve.
Gregory Copley, of Defense & Foreign Affairs, noted on December 12, 2017: “Saudi Arabia now appears to have moved beyond the point of recovery, and could collapse at any time into internal conflict or fracturing.” On October 8, 2015, he noted: “Concerns are growing within Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom is facing systemic challenges which could see its break-up within a decade or two.”
Matters came to a head on the evening of April 21, 2018, when heavy automatic weapons fire was heard over a fairly long timespan, coming from the compound of the Al-Khazami Palace in the neighborhood of Khuzama, in Riyadh. Government officials issued a report that the shooting was by Palace guards, firing at a civilian “toy” drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) which had strayed into forbidden airspace over the Palace. However, it was clear that some of the firing occurred within the Palace itself.
There were a significant number of casualties, and Riyadh had some discreet but clearly high-level funerals in the days which followed, although no announcements were subsequently made (even by early June 2018) of the deaths of any senior officials. It was understood that some visiting and very senior princes and officials were in the Palace with their armed bodyguards at the time of the incident.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was reported to have been struck by at least two rounds. The Government had said that King Salman bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud was not in the Palace at the time of the “drone incident”, and that he was at a family/military compound in the north-west of the Kingdom.
Other, private reports said that the King was in Riyadh at the time, and was quickly moved to a safe haven. The incident showed the extent of the anger felt by a significant number of family members of the House of Sa’ud toward Crown Prince Mohammed’s policies and methods.
Neither the King nor the Crown Prince appeared in open public situations from the time of the incident until early June 2018, although, on May 31, 2018, the Government released video footage of Crown Prince Mohammed meeting that day in Jeddah with Abd al-Rab Mansour al-Hadi, the Saudi-supported President of Yemen. What was significant about the video and still imagery released on May 31, 2018, was that one shot showed the Crown Prince standing and shaking hands with the President. King Salman met in Jeddah with the President the day before.
What is significant is that this was the first occasion in which Crown Prince Mohammed was shown standing since the April 21 shooting incident; all other imagery — and there was very little of that — only showed him seated. Clearly, however, if the Crown Prince was injured in the incident, then the wounds were not life-threatening, even though they were sufficient to ensure that he could not be presented to the public in a way which would allay rumors.
It has been confirmed that Crown Prince Mohammed was in a position to meet and conduct significant business with visiting Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali on May 18, 2018, just 27 days after the shooting incident, although no imagery exists of their meetings during the official visit of Dr Abiy (May 18-20, 2018). This was a significant visit, not only due to some tensions between the Kingdom and Ethiopia, but because Crown Prince Mohammed was attempting to act as an intermediary between Ethiopia and Eritrea, healing several decades of tensions and, for Saudi Arabia, to ensure that the influence of Iran and Qatar in both countries was minimized.
[The Crown Prince also agreed to release 1,000 Ethiopians imprisoned for minor offences in the Kingdom, a move seen as positive in Ethiopia, but Prince Mohammed’s attempts to reduce the number of foreign workers in the Kingdom — which is under severe economic constraints — in 2017 saw 14,000 Ethiopians forcibly deported, and 70,000 voluntary returnees. Overall, the Kingdom wants to deport 500,000 Ethiopian workers, of whom some 160,000 have already left.]
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Kingdom on April 28, 2018, a week after the shooting, and met with King Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, but not with the Crown Prince.
Iraqi cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, the key victor of the May 12, 2018, Iraq parliamentary elections, had requested to visit the Kingdom, to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed, after his visit to Kuwait on May 30, 2018. The Shi’a cleric had visited the Kingdom in 2017, and had been warmly received, because of his independence from Iran, a position which only became more valuable following his recent election win. But the Saudi Government asked him to delay his visit to the Kingdom, a sign that there were still difficulties in the country.
But what was also significant was that Crown Prince Mohammed and King Salman had apparently spent much of the five weeks after the incident ensconced in the Rabigh Palace — a military compound with its own port — in Makkah (Mecca) Province, on the Red Sea. There was some speculation that the choice of this compound gave the option of rapid departure from the Kingdom if medical conditions demanded a move, or if the internal situation worsened.
By Gregory Copley via Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis