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Fast-track to Saudi Arabia's throne?

Recent top appointments have increased speculation about the succession, but the overall outlook for the kingdom appears stable

A group of civil servants at the Bourj al-Hamam restaurant in Riyadh, watching the waiter fill their glasses with Saudi "champagne"—a non-alcoholic fruity concoction—reflected on the enormous changes in the kingdom since King Salman came to the throne in January 2015. "For years very little happened here," one told me. "Now the developments seem unreal, they're so fast, it's like we're in a dream."

Associated with almost all the recent changes is the king's youngest son, deputy crown prince Muhammed bin Salman, who, still in his early 30s, also holds the defence portfolio and is the country's oil, economics and reform supremo. It has long been suggested by many people inside and outside Saudi Arabia that MbS, as he is commonly referred to, is the real power in the land and could well leapfrog crown prince Muhammed bin Naif to become the next king.

Recent senior appointments have reinforced that impression. Two more sons of the king have been given prominent roles: Khalid, not yet 30 years old, has been appointed ambassador to the US; and Abdel Aziz has been promoted within the energy ministry to the rank of minister of state. This appears to give the Salman branch of the family direct access to the White House, where Saudi Arabia is happy to find a president who shares the kingdom's distrust of Iran; and direct access to oil policy.

Furthermore, King Salman (or is it MbS?) has announced the setting up of a National Security Centre attached directly to the royal court. This move is being widely interpreted as a way of undercutting the power and influence of the interior ministry, headed by the crown prince.

But is this really the case? Some Saudis insist that the role of the new Security Centre will be to coordinate the various institutions involved in state security, the army, the national guard, the air force, the navy, ministry of interior units, and so on. "If you removed the personalities involved, the centre would make perfect sense," says an EU diplomat in Riyadh. "But of course you can't remove them."

Those who argue against the theory of a Salman consolidation of power that favours MbS's fast-track to the throne, point out that crown prince Muhammed bin Naif is still seen prominently in public by the king's side. They point out, too, that his role as internal security chief means that his profile is lower than that of the deputy crown prince, the public face of social and economic reform.

Nobody outside the king's circle knows for sure. But as far as the civil servants enjoying dinner in the Bourj al-Hamam restaurant were concerned royal family tensions over the succession are overplayed in the West. "The family will resolve the issue," one of them says. "We'll find out when it's happened. It's nothing to worry about."

Saudi Arabia's Vietnam

At the Saqr al-Jazeera aviation museum on the outskirts of Riyadh, the static display of sadly neglected civil and military aircraft sits incongruously next to a busy multi-lane ring road. Above the noise of the traffic is the sound of Saudi air force jet trainers at a nearby air base carrying out a succession of practice approaches and landings, hour after hour. The trainee pilots are being put through their paces as fast as possible—they're needed for real action, over Yemen.

Since April 2015, Saudi jets have been pounding positions in Yemen held by the Iran-backed Shia Houthi movement and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. While Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have managed to secure the southern port of Aden and other areas in the south, they have yet to retake Taiz further north, or the capital, Sanaa. The kingdom has become bogged down in a war which neither side appears capable of winning. The conflict is a daily drain on the Saudi national purse and is attracting increasing international criticism of the kingdom as the civilian suffering in Yemen reaches horrendous levels.

"It's our Vietnam," says a member of the Shura council, who asked not to be named. "We were right to go in to stop Iran taking over the country. But there should now be a diplomatic settlement."

"Really, people here are looking for a way of ending this war," says academic Ali al-Khashaibani. "But as you know a decision like this cannot be made by Saudi Arabia alone."

There's also widespread indignation that all the blame for the suffering is laid at the feet of Saudi Arabia. Acts of violence perpetrated by the rebels are unreported. The daily Asharq al-Awsat, which is owned by King Salman's family, quoted the governor of Taiz, a city under siege by the rebels, as saying that "the killing of civilians is a daily occurrence as residential areas and streets come under shelling".

No one I spoke to could suggest how Saudi Arabia might swiftly exit Yemen without appearing to hand a victory to the Houthis and Iran. While mediation efforts involving the UN and Oman are continuing, some Saudis suggest that with logistical and intelligence support from the Trump-led US a massive military thrust towards Taiz and Sanaa will be launched in the autumn to force the rebels to the negotiating table.

Either way, an end to the conflict is unlikely before those young Saudi pilots practising touch-and-goes at a Riyadh air base win their wings.

This article is part of a report series on Saudi Arabia. Next article is: Saudi gain before more pain

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