All change in Saudi Arabia? Not quite yet

It should never be underestimated with the Saudi ruling family, the importance of regime stability at all costs.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has moved one step closer to showing its hand on the upcoming dilemma of who will succeed the sons of the Kingdom’s founder Abdulaziz al Saud (ibn Saud). The appointment of Mugrin bin Abdulaziz to the position of Second Deputy Prime Minister, long seen as a necessary office for a King-in-waiting indicates that King Abdullah has decided for now at least to defer the transfer of power to the grandsons of Ibn Saud for a few more years.

Mugrin was not an obvious choice, rather unceremoniously removed from his post as head of Saudi Arabia’s makhabarat in 2012, many thought Mugrin’s career had hit the buffers.  A great many Kingdom watchers (myself included) will now have to admit that the excitement of a potential generational shift caused us to overlook the older man, and dismiss his mother’s Yemeni roots as being unsuitable for a man aspiring to the throne of the al-Saud, a family from Arabia’s harsh Nejd regions.

In truth Mugrin was never far away from the main circle of power. In July 2012, he was appointed King Abdullah's advisor and special envoy with the rank of minister, and recent film footage of Abdullah chairing weekly council meetings from his palace or from his hospital bed showed Mugrin sat never more than two or three places away from the King, with usually only Salman and Nayef (in their roles as Crown Prince) in closer proximity.

This was not an overnight decision, the aging King has expended much of his remaining energy on restructuring the Kingdom in recent months, and it has been known for some time that the early months of 2013 would be the setting for major structural changes in the Kingdom’s executive branches.

Meritocratic moves

First came the movement of Mohammed bin Nayef to head up the Ministry of the Interior, the Kingdom’s ubiquitous arbiter of civil and security affairs. The movement surprised some in that the younger bin Nayef was moved to head the Ministry ahead of the incumbent Prince Ahmed, his uncle  and senior by some twenty years.  In a country in which deference to age is a constituent part of the culture, this signified a very meaningful shift away from traditionalism towards a system based more on meritocracy.

January also saw some meaningful reshuffles; in the Eastern Province, Saud bin Nayef took over from longstanding governor Mohammed bin Fahad, a reshuffle also occued in Medina, and rumours persisted that Khalid al Faisal would be moved from his position in Mecca to the governorship of Riyadh. Quite what that said of Prince Sattam, Riyadh’s incumbent governor is a mystery, but for former Interior Minister Prince Ahmed and Mohammed bin Fahd it is safe to say that their influence in Saudi politics is now limited.

Yet in the midst of these changes and much talk of shifting the hands of the Kingdom to the next generation in comes Prince Mugrin, one of the old guard, though at 67, he’s younger than all but one of his brothers.  Abdullah clearly wants a steady hand on the tiller, and is nervous about giving the top job to a ‘younger’ prince at this time. Mugrin’s appointment to Second Deputy Prime Minister is a sign that he does not yet believe the youngsters ready to assume the top job of the world’s most powerful oil state.

Yet the analysis is not so black and white, Abdullah has ensured that younger princes begin to receive more influence and power in the ruling hierarchy, and given Crown Prince Salman’s well documented health concerns and declining mental faculties, Mugrin will be expected to do much of the heavy lifting from the moment Abdullah passes away. His relationship with the young generation is therefore crucial. Mugrin’s relationship with his ministers will not be like that seen during the end of the reign of King Fahd or that of Abdullah, it will be more consultative and hierarchically horizontal.  The influence of the younger family members will grow and under Mugrin we will see a fully fledged shift to the younger generation occur. Then and only then all the questions about generational shifts will start to become clear.

Mugrin bin Abdulaziz

Many wonder what sort of a man Mugrin is, the answer from those who know him is always the same;  friendly, with a good sense of humour, foreign diplomats and businessmen rarely have a bad word to say about the man. In Saudi Arabia more widely he is considered one of the more popular members of the family and his affable character has certainly ensured that there are few who dislike him. He is largely unencumbered by the issues of being a Sudairi or a Faisal, and therefore perhaps the best choice to be the arbiter of power shifts amongst the younger members of the family in coming years, being as he is free of the baggage of fekhitha (sub-tribe) politics.

Mugrin is known to be a liberal on social issues, but his links with the country’s religious establishment remain an unknown. Certainly there is little to suggest he commands influence over the Haia (the religious police), therefore if Mugrin does become King he will need to work hard on cementing these relationships with the Sheikhs and will most likely rely upon Mohammed bin Nayef to help keep the hand of the state on the religious police and their occasional excesses. It is not clear that Mugrin could handle them in the way his older brothers Nayef and Abdullah have done, which is to show no mercy when a zealous cleric oversteps the boundaries of acceptability.

On issues of foreign policy Mugrin is largely cut from the same cloth as his brothers. Rumours exist that he is perhaps even a hardliner on issues to do with Shia empowerment in the Kingdom but there remains no concrete evidence to support this analysis. He possesses a deep suspicion of Iranian intent in the region, and is none too fond of Iraqi President Nouri Al Maliki who is viewed almost unanimously in Riyadh as a Persian stooge. His position on the Bahrain and Syria questions are again a product of consensus: Syria must not remain in the hands of Bashar al Assad, but neither must it become a new haven for jihadist terror which has the potential to blow back inside Saudi Arabia’s borders. Here the experience of Mugrin as intelligence chief will be of particular use, how he manages his increasingly important portfolio with that of the rather unpredictable Prince Bandar, Saudi’s current intelligence chief, will be interesting to watch in coming months, and is a potential source of tension.

Mugrin’s appointment is designed deliberately not to answer the question that remains on everybody’s lips; who in the next generation of the Al-Saud will rise to become King. However what it does do is allow those younger Princes a little more time to cement themselves in the more powerful positions they have been afforded under the watchful eye of a trusted ally of King Abdullah. Who will work to ensure that Abdullah’s reforms and hard work are not undone, and that the family remains united as it begins the transition phase to newer younger generations of princes.

It is important to remember that Mugrin being appointed to Second Deputy Prime Minister is not a 100% guarantee that he will assume the role of King. He could in effect serve in Prince Regent type role, assisting his ailing half brothers Abdullah and Salman in running the Kingdom whilst ensuring that the processes necessary for transition are smoothed over and that inter-factional fighting is avoided.

It should never be underestimated with the Saudi ruling family, the importance of regime stability at all costs. Whether change to younger generations happens now or in ten years matters little to the ruling house, as long as it occurs smoothly whilst allowing the country’s citizens to feel secure in the knowledge that the al-Saud is taking the decisions necessary to place the best princes in the highest offices. Mugrin’s appointment was surprising to be sure, but makes sense in the context of a ruling transition which King Abdullah envisions will take close to a decade to complete. 

About the author

Michael Stephens is a Researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf