A Game of Thrones: Royal Succession in Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Royal SuccessionThe guidelines for Saudi Arabian royal succession were formulated on the basis of principles bequeathed by Ibn Saud and the monarchy’s unique needs, circumstances, and political structure. These arrangements, first and foremost the transfer of power among members of the same generation, may have had a positive effect on the monarchy’s stability over the years, but they created a critical problem as the pool of potential heirs ages. With the recent move to the generation of Ibn Saud’s grandsons, the struggle for the throne – generally occurring behind the scenes – is becoming one that involves many princes and could have a negative effect on stability in this leading Gulf state.

To a large extent, maintaining regime stability in Saudi Arabia relates to the transition of power among brothers rather than from father to son. It may be that this custom has ensured successors with the requisite experience to manage affairs of state, but it has also reduced the pool of potential heirs, resulting in the possibility that Saudi Arabia’s aging leadership may negatively affect the nation’s stability. Concern about succession struggles is not groundless, as the kingdom’s selection process is not entirely institutionalized. Problems concerning succession of governance in monarchies are not unique to Saudi Arabia – Oman too could face them – but the status and importance of Saudi Arabia as the “custodian” of Islam’s holy sites, its possession of the world’s largest oil reserves, and its role as the leading political and military power among the Gulf’s Arab states lends urgency to the Saudi situation. The advanced age and deteriorating health of King Salman and the nomination of Muhammad bin Nayef as the kingdom’s new deputy crown prince suggest that a transition of power to the grandsons’ generation, or at least a decision on the identity of the next heir, is closer than previously thought.

In March 2014, Prince Muqrin, Ibn Saud’s youngest living son, was appointed second in line to the throne, though due to his mother’s Yemeni origins and the fact that she was a maidservant, he was at first thought to have slim chances of inheriting the crown. Muqrin, the former director general of al-Mukhabarat al-A’amah, the Saudi intelligence agency, and a former fighter pilot, is Ibn Saud’s thirty-fifth son (his year of birth is commonly given as 1945).

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Thus, his appointment in practice defers the transition to the grandsons’ generation and symbolizes the preference for continuity and stability over progress and change. While compared to some of his brothers Muqrin has relatively little experience in security and foreign affairs, he was considered influential at court and close to King Abdullah. On more than one occasion he has been described by Western diplomats as Abdullah’s “eyes and ears.”

When Abdullah died, his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, ascended the throne, though his reign is likely to be brief because of the state of his health. Immediately upon taking office, King Salman appointed Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz as the new deputy crown prince and second deputy prime minister, meaning that he is third in line for the throne. For the first time in modern Saudi Arabian history, a grandson of the kingdom’s first ruler, rather than a son, has a place in the line of succession – a move that injects clarity and vigor into the future succession of the al-Saud dynasty. Muhammad’s way to the crown is well paved: Crown Prince Muqrin’s credentials to be king continue to be questioned by senior princes; Muhammad has no sons – which might make his ascension less threatening to other princes; he is a Sudairi; and last but not least he is Washington’s favorite candidate.

In the past, Saudi policy was intimately bound with the king’s character and opinion. Although decisions are usually made in consultation and there is always the desire to reach agreement among the senior office holders in the royal household, the king has the final say. Therefore his identity is important in the setting of Saudi Arabia’s policies. It is difficult to assess the style and policies of the next king because these tend, quite naturally, to change once the successor enters office; the situation always looks different when the shoe is on the other foot. When it comes to the nation’s foreign policy, one may assume that the new Saudi Arabian king will try to mend relations with the United States, the country’s most important ally and, like his predecessor, try to prevent Iran from further solidifying its influence in the region.

The main concern of the Saudi royal family is retaining their rule. The smoothness of the first ever generational transition suggests that the al-Sauds will do their best to do so. The Saudi model for royal succession will come under less strain than in recent years, but the manner of the transition of power to the next generation (a misleading term, as many of the princes of that generation are themselves quite elderly) and the effect of the process on the stability of governance in Saudi Arabia still depend, to a large extent, on the ability of the Allegiance Council to function as a body granting governmental legitimacy and mediating in disagreements and power struggles. The existence of an institutionalized family forum may help stabilize the Saudi monarchy during a crucial transitional phase ahead. Finally, the king’s political abilities as mediator and arbitrator will be tested and be a critical factor in managing the complex succession process no less than the question of whether the members of the next generation will succeed in preserving the Saudi tradition that stresses the stability of the kingdom and continuity of the house of Saud as supreme values.

Written by: Yoel Guzansky