Saudi Arabia's Family Feud

Facing threats from all directions, King Abdullah moves to get his foreign-policy team in place -- and quell infighting within the royal family.

The usual somnolence of Ramadan in Saudi Arabia is being broken this year by intense politicking within the royal family. Official Saudi work hours for the holy month are limited to just six hours a day, but key princes in the House of Saud are working long and late. Just after midnight local time on July 1, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced a "royal order" making Prince Bandar bin Sultan -- formerly the long-serving ambassador to Washington and later the intelligence chief -- King Abdullah's special envoy. Four minutes later, another SPA story announced that Bandar's cousin, Prince Khalid bin Bandar, had been made head of the Saudi intelligence agency.

The two appointments have both domestic and international significance. The Islamic State's invasion of Iraq leaves Saudi Arabia's borders exposed to the chaos of what is left of the "Arab Spring." Bandar bin Sultan, who was replaced as intelligence chief in April after spending several years spearheading Saudi attempts to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is now needed to make sure that the jihadists' successes in Iraq threaten Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki without threatening the kingdom. At home, Khalid bin Bandar's elevation to the top position in the country's intelligence community came after he became the victim of a surprisingly public feud within the royal family that saw him pushed out as deputy defense minister a mere six weeks after his appointment.

The turnover at the Saudi Defense Ministry has probably prompted at least one foreign embassy in Riyadh reporting home to recall Oscar Wilde's line from the play The Importance of Being Earnest: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Prince Khalid's exit from the apparently dysfunctional ministry made him the fourth deputy defense minister to lose his job within the space of 15 months. Like his predecessors, he seems to have fallen foul of a junior cousin, Muhammad bin Salman, a 30-something son of Crown Prince Salman, the defense minister and heir apparent. The elder Salman, who turns 78 this year, has been widely reported to be suffering from dementia -- the accounts run the gamut from memory issues to Alzheimer's -- making him personally incapable of running the Defense Ministry.

Muhammad bin Salman has come out of nowhere, relatively speaking. While the major royal players below the level of King Abdullah and the other sons of the late Abdul Aziz, also known as Ibn Saud, are in their 50s and 60s, Muhammad's great -- and perhaps only -- strength is that he is liked and trusted by his father. Starting as a mere advisor, he was made head of the crown prince's court last year and he was further boosted this year to minister of state, which gives him a seat at the weekly meeting of the Council of Ministers. He is the eldest son of Prince Salman's third wife, and his older half-kin include tourism chief and one-time astronaut Prince Sultan bin Salman and Deputy Oil Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, though, significantly, neither is seen very often at their father's side. Although not officially part of the Defense Ministry, Muhammad uses his role as gatekeeper to his father to control decision-making on the kingdom's army, air force, and navy, and thwart what is now a long list of ex-deputy defense ministers.

King Abdullah's prompt action in promoting Prince Khalid to head of intelligence just two days after he was forced to resign from the Defense Ministry suggests that the monarch may act decisively to bring order to his government. "Swiftness" in Saudi terms is a relative concept -- especially during Ramadan -- but, at the very least, Abdullah seems unlikely to appoint another deputy defense minister in the current circumstances and would also be unlikely to allow Crown Prince Salman to press the nomination of his son, Muhammad, to this role.

The crisis also provides an opportunity for Abdullah to complete the sidelining of Salman. This began in early 2013, when the king appointed his half-brother Muqrin as second deputy prime minister, a title which allowed him to chair Council of Ministers meetings in the absence of the king or crown prince. Then in March of this year, Abdullah gave Muqrin the new title of deputy crown prince, putting him on the road to be king when Salman and Abdullah die or become incapacitated. The monarch attempted to lock in this decision by forcing senior princes to give an advance oath of allegiance to Muqrin. A majority -- though not all, significantly -- did so. How such a commitment would work in practice is a matter of speculation: If Abdullah dies first, Salman's supporters would likely press for Salman to be able to declare his own crown prince, ignoring Muqrin's claim on the position.

Abdullah could even take the risky move of citing Salman's inability to control the upheaval at the Defense Ministry and getting a medical committee to certify his mental incompetence, giving the king the opportunity to promote Muqrin as crown prince. Muqrin himself was born on the wrong side of the blanket -- his mother was a slave girl of Ibn Saud. But given the challenges facing the country and Salman's record of annoying princes who might in other circumstances be regarded as in his camp, the timing could be right.

With threats building throughout the Middle East, this is not a time for King Abdullah to procrastinate. The Islamic State's declaration of a caliphate challenges Saudi Arabia's self-appointed role as leader of the Islamic world, while Tehran's cozying up to Washington over Iraq as well as the nuclear issue threatens to undermine Saudi leadership of the Arab world as well. Outside the borders of the kingdom, Abdullah will look to Prince Bandar and Prince Khalid to counter these threats. But at home, he will be the key player. This Ramadan could be a time for unusual amounts of action in the palaces of Riyadh and Jeddah.


Midfield General

It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a Vertebra

Neymar’s injury shows what happens when soccer enters a bad equilibrium.

It has not been the best week at the World Cup, especially for American fans. Striker Jozy Altidore failed to take the field for the United States, which lacked a spearpoint to its attack in its heartbreaking loss to Belgium. Meanwhile, after a goal glut in the group stage, the scoring taps have almost run dry. And worst of all, the tournament's poster boy has been knocked out by injury. All of these unfortunate events can be explained using game theory -- and at least one of them could have been avoided. Here's how.

First, consider Altidore, who'd strained a hamstring during his team's opening game against Ghana. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann had him in uniform for the clash with Belgium, but the big center forward didn't play. You could forgive American fans for their disappointment; chatter from the United States camp suggested throughout the run-up to the game that Altidore would be ready. In the end, though, it was a bluff. Altidore's injure was too severe for him to recover in time, and Klinsmann admitted as much after the game.

In game theory, this is called signaling. Talking up Altidore was an attempt to make Belgium waste time preparing for an opponent that they wouldn't even face. As long as there was a non-zero probability that Altidore would play, the Belgians' best strategy was to spend a non-zero amount of time considering how they would defend him.

The United States ended up losing to Belgium 2-1, which was a big score for the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals. Earlier, the tournament had offered 2.8 goals per game in the group stage, but the next 12 matches averaged only 1.9 even with several periods of extra time. Again, this was partly the result of strategy.

In the group stage, the rules of the tournament give teams an incentive to play offensive soccer and run up the score; after all, the United States only advanced because of goal difference. But in the knockout rounds, when teams are more evenly matched, the most important thing is not to concede. Once a team scores, it has little incentive to send players forward looking for more goals; the preferred way to finish the game is by bunkering the defense. Indeed, three of the 12 games in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals finished 1-0, compared with eight of the previous 48.

The events above can be explained by game theory, but they couldn't necessarily have been avoided. That's not the case with Neymar's injury. Towards the end of a rough-and-tumble match, the Brazilian star was kneed in the back by Colombia's Juan Zúñiga and had to leave the field on a stretcher. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with a broken back. Yet his World Cup did not have to end this way.

To understand why, imagine that Brazil and Colombia were playing without a referee. In this hypothetical situation, each team would have a choice of whether to play dirty or clean. If both play dirty, neither will have a clear advantage and both will leave the field with injuries. If both teams play clean, then they'll both avoid injuries as well. But if one team plays dirty and the other doesn't, the dirty team will have a clear advantage.

This is a classic Prisoner's Dilemma. With no cooperation between the teams, both will play dirty, as it's the best strategy regardless of how the other team plays. Clearly, it would be better if they could both commit to playing clean. On their own, however, they can't credibly make this commitment. That's where the referee comes in.

The referee's job is to impose the good equilibrium so that the teams avoid the bad equilibrium. By laying down the law early in the game, usually by calling fouls for any illegal contact and issuing cards for particularly dirty ones, he can give the teams a strong incentive to stick to the high road.

Unfortunately for Neymar, Spain's Carlos Velasco Carballo did not perform this vital function in Brazil's match against Colombia. As former World Cup referee Graham Poll put it, "Carballo wore the referee's kit, but he wasn't in charge." He let foul after foul go unpunished, sometimes not even stopping the play, until he finally pulled out a yellow card against James Rodríguez -- himself the victim of numerous fouls -- after 67 minutes. When Neymar went down with only a few minutes left to play, Carballo did nothing.

Game theory can be a tool to beat an opponent, but it can also make an entire tournament safer and more enjoyable. Hopefully FIFA will convey that message to its referees before the next round of the World Cup begins.

Eitan Abramovich / AFP / Getty Images