[Arab Digest thanks Christopher Davidson, a noted author and scholar for this piece. His latest book is From Sheikhs to Sultanism: Statecraft and Authority in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.]
Unveiled earlier this year, the prominent new mural inside Riyadh’s Al-Yamamah Palace — the seat of the Saudi Royal Court — is worthy of comment. It depicts King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud in the center, the omnipotent Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman Al-Saud (MBS) is on his right, the far less prominent Prince Turki bin Salman Al-Saud on his left.
Within Saudi Arabia, the mural has stoked a debate over the most probable line of succession in the event of the 86-year-old king dying. Notably, suggestions have emerged that a future “King MBS” might be willing (or might have been asked by his parents) to appoint Turki as his heir apparent. On paper, such a scenario isn’t particularly implausible, nor even controversial. MBS’s own sons are too young for such a role. After MBS, Turki is the eldest of the sons of Fahda bint Falah Al-Hathleen, King Salman’s notable third wife.
Money, not succession, is the point
In some respects, however, the rumor mill might be missing the main point. After all, ‘Riyadhology’-style guessing who is the crown prince seems futile. An increasingly sultanistic MBS could delay the anointment of his successor. Instead, MBS could just play the waiting game until he is strong enough to make one of his own sons the crown prince. In doing so, he will be taking another leaf out of Abu Dhabi’s Muhammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, (MBZ)’s book, where everyone in the innermost sanctum is patiently waiting until MBZ anoints his favored son Khalid as his successor, seeing off any of his uncles.
The mural is perhaps better understood as another layer of evidence indicating that it is actually Turki, rather than any of Fahda’s ostensibly higher profile sons, who has emerged as MBS’s right-hand man. Fahda’s third eldest son, Khalid bin Salman Al-Saud, is deputy minister for defense after serving as ambassador to the US. Her fourth eldest, Bandar bin Salman Al-Saud, is commander of the Royal Bodyguard and is responsible for the personal security of both King Salman and MBS. Unlike his brothers, Turki seems to have quietly assumed control over the family’s private fortunes. He is also being discreetly positioned as one of the kingdom’s most important interlocutors with foreign investors.
Notably, Turki is understood to have already taken over the management of King Salman’s personal real estate portfolio. He served as the guarantor of and is associated with several entities owning King Salman’s various overseas properties. He also served a short stint as chair of the Saudi Research and Media Group before MBS plucked him out to take the helm of the Al-Tharawat, the personal treasures of the family, in 2015.
Turki’s financial dealings
Though founded in 2008, Al-Tharawat assumed importance in January 2016 as part of MBS’s post-oil diversification masterplan. This masterplan is known as the National Transformation Programme (NTP) and was part of the renowned Saudi Vision 2030. Significantly, the NTP has focused heavily on supporting private sector growth in strategic areas. The NTP’s goal is to boost the share of the private sector in the GDP from 40 to 65%.
In this context, Turki’s Al-Tharawat had begun to expand rapidly. It is increasingly referred to in Saudi Arabia as a sharikat takatul, a “conglomerate corporation,” and was initially compared to some of the biggest Gulf merchant family-owned companies in Dubai and Bahrain, including the Al-Futtaim Group, the Al-Ghurair Group and the Kanoo Group. Al-Tharawat has invested in a number of domestic real estate, construction, agricultural, medical and IT projects. It has also been linked to a series of contentious Saudi air industry investments.
Back in 2014, Al-Tharawat had already acquired a majority stake in a small Dubai-based bank. Turki took over as chairman of this bank, which then went on to serve as one of two placement agents for a new shariah-compliant aircraft leasing fund. In turn, this fund had solicited a $100 million investment from Airbus. The fund was then supposed to purchase 50 Airbus aircraft and then lease them to Saudi Arabia’s national carrier, Saudia. These aircraft formed a third of Saudia’s fleet.
The signing ceremony was held in London where Turki formally announced the fund’s launch. In June 2015, MBS stated at the Paris Air Show that the leasing deal had been finalized, claiming he himself had been its “mastermind.” Significantly, the arrangement soon generated opprobrium, including a rare implicit criticism of the ascendant MBS.
The financial dealings for Turki and Al-Tharawat are wide-ranging and intricate. Comparing them to the merchant family-owned conglomerates is misleading. Therefore, astute observers, both inside and outside Saudi Arabia, have instead begun likening Al-Tharawat to Bahrain’s Premier Group, which is owned by Bahrain’s Royal Court and is understood to manage King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa’s private domestic and international investments. They also draw comparisons with Abu Dhabi’s Royal Group, which under Tahnun bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s leadership is seen by some as representing the private business interests of MBZ and his other full brothers.
The activities of Al-Tharawat clearly reveal that Turki has emerged as his family’s money man and is second only in power to MBS.
[Arab Digest first published this article and is a partner of Fair Observer.]
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