Succession in Saudi Arabia

In an article on the succession in Saudi Arabia, where brother succeeds brother, The Economist notes that, the next in line to the throne,  Crown Prince Sultan is ill, thought to be with colon cancer. The importance as to who becomes the next king, after the 86 year old King Abdullah, is paramount as the “kingdom has nearly 30m people, sits on 20% of global oil reserves, houses the holiest sites in Islam and is situated in a particularly turbulent region”, any sudden change for the Middle East could be dangerous, not only for Saudi Arabia itself but also for America and its interests. As the article notes “it happens to be on the cusp of changes in leadership that may prove as wrenching as any in its history”.

King Abdullah, praised as a reformer in the staunchly conservative kingdom, though not by all, is seen as aging, “His windows of lucidity are shrinking; loyal minders frequently rephrase his words so they make sense. When he abruptly postponed a planned French leg of his current summer tour, rumours about his health abounded”.

Despite the reforms that Abdullah has introduced such as appointing women in the Ministry of Education, there are concerns that his “quiet promotion of social reform has not been matched by any similar move towards political change”, even worse, some have voiced unease over how long these reforms will last under a new king.

It seems that the “Changes made since Abdullah acceded in 2005 lack an institutional basis and have not captured the imagination of the Saudi public, leading to the impression that they constitute personal whims that can just as easily be taken back or put indefinitely on the back burner”. The article notes how “Regarding explicitly political reform, there is little progress”, however, it does say that Abdullah’s “focus is rather on making the public sector more efficient, with corruption in particular being quietly targeted”. Understandably, “So far, a change in the mood music without an institutional basis for greater progress has had little effect on the attitudes or expectations of Saudi nationals”.

Of those who should succeed Abdullah, The Economist article mentions how  Crown Prince Sultan “spent most of last year secluded at his vast estate in Morocco, convalescing from a serious but unnamed disease. His return to Saudi Arabia in December, and apparent resumption of duties, prompted surprise. In his rare public appearances, the crown prince looks frail and distracted”. The articles says that the post of second deputy prime minister (“crown prince in waiting”)  held since March 2009 by Prince Nayef , is “only 77, and fairly spry. But he seldom travels outside the country. As a crustily conservative minister of the interior for the past 35 years he has not endeared himself to Saudi reformers”.

Things become complicated however, as the Allegiance Commission created in 2006 “has the job of selecting the crown prince—after Sultan becomes king. This suggests that Sultan, unlike previous rulers, will be legally bound to give way on this crucial point to the wider family’s wishes. The council also has the right to remove sitting kings on health grounds”. Yet, the appointment of Prince Nayef as second deputy prime minster last year seems to question the power of the commission. While at the same time “people reckoned that since Sultan’s poor health may make him unlikely to outlive Abdullah, the king was persuaded to anoint another Sudairi in the interests of family peace”.

Moving beyond these immediate members the magazine mentions others who could become king, “Nayef’s 73-year-old full brother, Salman, the governor of Riyadh; and Prince Muqrin, aged 64, a former fighter pilot who is now head of intelligence. Among the grandsons the choice is of course much wider. The leading contenders include two Muhammads: the son of Nayef who is an effective deputy minister of interior; and the son of Fahd, who still governs the Eastern Province”.

The Washington Institute posits three possible senarios for the next few years; Crown Prince Sultan dies before Abdullah, which would mean that Prince Nayef should take his place as Crown Prince, however according to the WI Nayef “is not considered sufficiently popular. His younger brother Prince Salman is a possible choice”, it will however be hard to deny Nayef, having appointed him second deputy prime minister. Another possibility is that Abdullah dies and Sultan succeeds him as planned or alternatively to avoid a succession of brief reigns, a younger man could be chosen.

In his long but fascinating paper, Simon Henderson implies that until 1992 the succession went from brother to brother out of political expediency. King Fahd in 1992 in the Basic Law stated that:”Rule passes to the sons of the founding king, Abdulaziz bib Abdulrahman al-Faisal al-Saud, and to their children’s children. The most upright among them is to receive allegiance in accordance with [the principles of] the Holy Koran and the tradition of the venerable Prophet”.  Henderson notes that Abdullah after his accession in 2005 “made no effort to appoint a second deputy prime minister, a crown prince in waiting”. This of course was only rectified in 2009 with the appointment of Prince Nayef. Henderson says that “This [initial] omission was widely seen as representing Abdullah’s determination to exclude Nayef, the long-serving interior minister, a logical choice in terms of age and experience”.

Henderson says there are a number of things needed to become king, broadly these are:age, having a Saudi mother, administrative experience, acumen, popularity (both inside the family and to a lesser extent outside). Henderson says that Nayef will become king unless he where to die before Abdullah and Sultan. Should he outlive both of these Henderson says that Nayef may choose Prince Salman, the long serving governor of Riyadh as his crown prince.

When it comes to the next generation, Henderson notes that “sons of past kings are usually not considered worthy or mention”. He mentions Abdullah’s sons Mitab and Mishal, Sultan’s son Khalid and Salman’s son, Sultan all of who have some governement experience.

What is obvious is the kingdom is entering into a potentially unstable time for itself, but also the whole Middle East. American plans for energy security as well as what to do with Iran and also Israel will unravel if there is not long term stability. 

There is far more at stake than just who becomes king.

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10 Responses to “Succession in Saudi Arabia”

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