North Africa, West Asia

Succession in Saudi Arabia: no surprises here

People should not expect drastic change in Saudi Arabia, as the regime's primary concern will be to maintain the status quo.

Carool Kersten
28 January 2015
King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh. Demotix/Dominic Dudley. All rights reserved.

King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh. Demotix/Dominic Dudley. All rights reserved.

Obituaries appearing on the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made much of how he fell short of making good on his promised agenda for reforms, while commentators provide the new King Salman with a list of things he is expected to do. However, Saudi Arabia and the world should not get their hopes up. The regime’s primary concern will be to maintain the status quo. And the swift positioning of figures in key posts in this orderly succession indicate that is exactly what will happen.

Although, during his nine-year reign Abdullah went through three crown princes, expect no dramatic changes, because Saudi successions have been unexciting since 1975.  Prior to that, things were rather different. 1962 saw a failed “palace revolution” by reform-minded young royals led by Prince Talal, who drew inspiration from Nasser and called themselves “Free Princes.”

Two years later, King Saud was deposed as he was an unbridled spendthrift driving the country into near bankruptcy. His successor, the frugal King Faisal, was assassinated in 1975 by a disaffected nephew, taking revenge for his brother who was killed at the order of Faisal during the 1964 “TV riots”.

Over the last forty years, the Al Saud have taken care to present a united front. This closing of the ranks is shaped not only by the experiences of the 1960s, but also lessons from history: in the nineteenth century, the Al Saud were ousted from power twice; the last time in the 1890s when rivalrous brothers fought openly over succession.

As a result they spent ten years in the political wilderness, languishing in exile in Bahrain and Kuwait until the founder of the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began the long campaign to restore Saudi power in the early decades of the twentieth century. 

The Al Saud have one paramount political objective: safeguarding the dynasty’s hold on power at all costs. Since 1975, the driving force behind this singular mission were the seven Sudairi brothers, led by the future King Fahd. In control of the key ministries of defence and the interior since 1962, they created the office of ‘second deputy prime minister’ in 1982, when Fahd ascended to the throne (having already acted as de facto ruler since 1975).

The position was created with the foresight of having not only a crown prince, but putting in place the next heir apparent-in-waiting as well. The first incumbent of this new position was King Fahd’s full brother, defence minister Prince Sultan. This meant that the then Crown Prince Abdullah was effectively squeezed between two Sudairis.

When King Abdullah came to power in 2005, he left the office of second deputy prime minister vacant twice, only appointing another Sudairi brother, interior minister Nayef in 2009, and – following another hiatus from 2011-2013, eventually giving the post to Prince Muqrin, who has now stepped up to become crown prince.

As the youngest surviving son of the founder of the kingdom, Muqrin is probably the last of his generation to become monarch. Most of his political life was spent in domestic administration; governing the important provinces of Hail and Medina. His foray into the world of international security was less fortunate; he was fired as Director of the Intelligence Agency for his failure to bring about regime change in Syria and replaced by the another Sudairi scion: Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late Crown Prince Sultan and a former ambassador to Washington.

Based on the experiences of the last decennia, and depending on how long the frail new King Salman will last, it is expected that the current status quo will be maintained for quite a few years to come.

King Salman’s quick appointment of his nephew, interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Second Deputy Prime Minister has already settled the succession question beyond new Crown Prince Muqrin.  As the youngest surviving son of the kingdom’s founder, the transition to the next generation has not only been announced, but the preferred candidate has been selected.

The appointment of the new king’s own son Muhammad also evinces the continuing hold on power of the Sudairi branch of the royal family. Given the new defence minister’s extreme youth (34), it is a clear indication of the Sudairis’ wish to consolidate their control over the kingdom far into the century.

Also it will be interesting to watch if any of the sons of former King Fahd and the late Crown Prince Sultan will feature again in new senior appointments. There is little chance for Crown Prince Muqrin to extend his influence through his sons: none have government experience, and the new Crown Prince’s own status is undermined by his descent from a Yemeni concubine rather than a Saudi princess.

So nothing much new can be expected from those who have now risen to the top.

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