TSG IntelBrief: Shakeup in Saudi Arabia’s Succession
April 30, 2015

Shakeup in Saudi Arabia’s Succession

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• King Salman of Saudi Arabia has recast the succession plan of his predecessor; by appointing Prince Mohammed bin Nayyef crown prince, he has consolidated the power of his Sudairi branch of the family and accelerated the move to the next generation

• King Salman’s appointment of his son as deputy crown prince takes advantage of the positive fallout from the war in Yemen

• Some in the royal family may be unhappy about the changes, but they are unlikely to protest publicly

• King Salman will now seek to ensure that the succession plan survives his death.

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King Salman’s appointment of his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayyef, as crown prince of Saudi Arabia to replace the king’s half-brother, Prince Muqrin, will not have come as a surprise to many in Saudi royal circles, not even to Prince Muqrin. Despite the supposedly irrevocable oath of loyalty to Muqrin taken by the ruling family at the time of his appointment to deputy crown prince by the previous king in March 2014, most people saw him as a placeholder for the eventual succession of King Abdullah’s son M’taib. Muqrin, despite having previously held positions as a provincial governor and as head of the General Intelligence Department, had shown neither the ambition nor the bureaucratic and policy skills that the leader of Saudi Arabia will certainly need over the coming years as the country navigates one of the most challenging and turbulent periods of its history. Prince Muqrin is said to have agreed immediately and without fuss when told of the king’s decision.

In contrast to Muqrin, Prince Mohammed has steadily built a strong reputation for competence and widespread support for his leadership skills ever since he became a deputy interior minister in charge of security affairs in the late 1990s. Apart from his popularity both at home and abroad, Prince Mohammed has two other key qualities as a potential successor to King Salman: he is a grandson of the nation’s founder and his ‘favorite’ wife Hassa al-Sudairi, who was also King Salman’s mother, and he has no sons. This dynastic concentration within one section of the sprawling royal family is essential for a smooth succession into the next and future generations and Prince Mohammed’s lack of male progeny makes it less likely that he will block the ultimate succession of the new deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son.

Perhaps one element of the king’s announcements that may have caused surprise was their timing. But with the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen attracting wide support in the kingdom and throughout the rest of the Sunni Middle East, where it is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a long overdue and muscular retort to the growth of Iranian influence, this was a good time to promote Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As minister of defense, Mohammed bin Salman has been presented as the man in charge of the air campaign and the architect of what may be seen as a rare Arab military success. It is likely that the impact of the campaign has now peaked, with little more to be achieved against a relatively powerless neighbor without a far more tricky and uncertain ground operation; the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman may therefore have caught his popularity on the flood.

The king’s task now will be to ensure that the precedent he has set for upturning the decisions of a predecessor over issues of succession will not be repeated after his death. He will want to present his son as a visionary and able leader who is in touch with the next generation of Saudis. Prince Mohammed bin Salman is already chairman of the key Committee for Economic and Development Affairs, and it is precisely in this area that the future security of the kingdom lies. Saudi Arabia has announced the arrest of 93 supporters of the Islamic State in recent weeks, and although this is seen as a tribute to the work of Prince Mohammed bin Nayyef as Minister of Interior, the fact that the Islamic State has attracted thousands of Saudis to its ranks and has inspired plots in the kingdom, points to longer term issues of social disaffection that need to be addressed beyond the security sphere.

The king will take his son to the United States for President Obama’s summit meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council heads of state in May, and this will provide him some foreign exposure and heighten his profile. Unlike most other senior members of the royal family, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has not been educated abroad, and the U.S. in particular will want to get a closer look at him. Other foreign trips are likely to follow. But although Prince Mohammed bin Salman will need to shore up his credentials as a future ruler, given the longevity of previous kings, he may have at least 25 years to do so. The appointment of Adel al-Jubeir, a loyalist technocrat, to take over as foreign minister from Prince Saud al-Faisal, who had held the position for 40 years, rather than another member of the royal family, will give him further room.

Although there may be some opposition within the royal family to the new appointments, especially as they move the succession to the next generation, so ending any chance for the surviving brothers of Salman to take over from him, and making it highly unlikely that any of their sons will feature in succession planning either, it is unlikely that the House of Saud will squabble in public. One key strength of the family has been its ability to keep its disagreements private. Prince M’taib will be seen as the biggest loser, but for the moment he remains engaged in the key issues of the day. King Salman ordered the National Guard to deploy to the Yemeni border last week and M’taib remains its commander. If the Yemen campaign moves to a ground war, he will be a central player—with all the risks and opportunities that that implies.

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