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reflections

Apr 30, 2015 | 19:40 GMT

Saudi Arabia's King Revitalizes the Monarchy

(Stratfor)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The unfolding royal succession plan is a watershed event for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By prioritizing the country's third generation princes, Saudi King Salman is hoping to guide the House of Saud through its most critical period since being founded in the 1920s. 

Salman decided April 28 that he would be the last son of Abdulaziz bin Abdel-Rehman al-Saud — the founder of the modern kingdom — to rule the country. The monarch removed his half-brother Crown Prince Muqrin from first in the line of succession and elevated Muqrin's deputy, Prince Mohammed bin Naif, to the position. The king then appointed his own son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince. Prince Muqrin and Prince Ahmed, the king's full younger brother, have been superseded. They were the only two able-bodied second-generation al-Sauds remaining, which means that from here onward the throne will be occupied by the founder's grandsons.

Stratfor had been anticipating this passing of the baton for some years but did not expect it to happen for at least another decade. It is notable that only three months ago, upon the death of his predecessor, Salman was actually crowned and Muqrin took over as crown prince. At the time, the king appointed his nephew deputy crown prince, making him third in line to the throne. Under this plan, second generation princes would have ruled Saudi Arabia for some years to come. Clearly Salman has fast-tracked the succession process to skip straight to the third generation, and the ripples are still being felt throughout Saudi Arabia.

A number of factors informed Salman's decision. Primarily, the 80-year-old king understands that he will not be around forever. Prince Muqrin, who is himself 69, is not known for his competence, and the only other able-bodied son, Prince Ahmed, does not have what it takes to lead. He worked well as deputy interior minister but could not shoulder the responsibility of leading the ministry and was removed from the post less than five months into his term, late in 2012.

Also, the kingdom finds itself in the most challenging period of its entire history. The Arab world is increasingly chaotic — Saudi interests are diverging with its erstwhile patron's, the United States — and Saudi Arabia's nemesis, Iran, is on the rise. In light of these circumstances, Salman believes the country and the Arab world need young, competent and energetic leadership. The third generation would have inevitably assumed the throne, but Salman felt the need to expedite the process to prop up the kingdom at a particularly trying time.

A Family Affair

Factional divisions also play a role in the succession plan, evident in the fact that the two princes — who share the same first name and who are expected to lead the affairs of the kingdom for many years to come — are first cousins from the Sudeiri clan. The Sudeiri Seven, as they are known, were seven full brothers and sons from the founder's favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, who hailed from a powerful al-Sudeiri clan based in the Najd region. Her sons include former King Fahd, former Crown Princes Sultan and Naif bin Abdulaziz, King Salman and Prince Ahmed. The Sudeiris' influence declined following the deaths of the king's two full elder brothers, Naif and Sultan, in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and following the replacement of Sultan's sons by the recently deceased King Abdullah. The appointment of Naif's son, Mohammed bin Naif, and the king's youngest son, Mohammed bin Salman, is a revival of sorts for the descendants of the Sudeiri Seven, who have had disproportionate influence in Saudi politics since the 1970s.

And herein lies the problem. With the new succession plan, Salman is ensuring that his own son is in line for succession, even though he is only 35 and has little experience in security matters and in politics. The king has passed over a number of better qualified (and senior) third-generation princes with far more domestic and international experience, such as 70-year-old former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal. Prince Turki was ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. And then there is 75-year-old Governor of Makkah, Prince Khaled al-Faisal. Also, of particular note, there is 63-year-old Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, who is the minister of the Saudi National Guard.

Since Prince Mitab heads an entity parallel to the Ministry of Defense and is the son of former King Abdullah, he is seen as a rival to Mohammed bin Salman, the young deputy crown prince and defense minister. Now that King Salman has set the precedent, however, it is possible that after the king's death Prince Mohammed bin Naif will replace Mohammed bin Salman as defense minister and deputy crown prince. Whether this happens will ultimately depend on the factional configuration at the time and the preferences of the future king.

The more important dynamic, however, is between the two Mohammeds. Moving forward, these two men will effectively be running the affairs of the kingdom, especially as the king's health inevitably declines. The balance of power between the two Mohammeds seems to have been carefully constructed by the monarch, but a great deal of uncertainty lies ahead.

As well as continuing to serve as minister of the interior, Mohammed bin Naif, as crown prince, is now also deputy prime minister. Furthermore, in January he was made head of the 9-member newly established Political and Security Affairs Council and is in charge of the efforts to oppose Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, having become the deputy crown prince, is also second deputy prime minister. He continues to be minister of defense and is in charge of the war effort in Yemen. Despite his inexperience, his father also made him chair of the newly appointed 22-member Economic and Development Council. 

Though the Saudi kingdom is relatively stable, it exists in an increasingly unstable region, which has pushed Riyadh to use its military clout — in addition to its political and financial influence — to prevent further chaos. It is in this context that the two princes will have to show leadership, at home and internationally. While Mohammed bin Naif, given his experience, is well respected in the region and in the West, there are serious questions about the capability of Mohammed bin Salman, especially in light of the military intervention in Yemen, where a political settlement with the Houthis remains elusive. Many of Saudi Arabia's allies, especially those in the Gulf Cooperation Council who rely on Saudi Arabia to do the heavy lifting, are uneasy about the young defense minister, and the sentiment is probably shared by Riyadh's Western allies. The lack of confidence is also felt domestically, where Mohammed bin Salman has been heavily criticized for his management of the war in Yemen.

Invitations to Outsiders

Another controversial aspect of the reshuffling is the appointment of a non-royal to the position of foreign minister for the first time since 1962. For the most part, since the founding of the kingdom, the post has been reserved for members of  the al-Faisal clan. King Faisal himself first held the position from 1930-1960 and then again from 1962-1975. Upon King Faisal's assassination in 1975, his son Saud al-Faisal took over the post and remained in it until yesterday.

Prince Saud, who is 75 and stricken with illness, has been asking to be relieved of his duties for a number of years. He was replaced by the kingdom's ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, a non-royal technocrat. The move is driven by the need to support the kingdom's increasingly assertive foreign policy — through the 1980s, al-Jubeir was a key player in the foreign policy-making circles of the kingdom. Al-Jubeir's appointment suggests that the kingdom may rely more on non-royals to provide geopolitical leadership during the age of grandsons, further pushing the kingdom into uncharted waters during an era when Saudi Arabia has emerged as the undisputed leader of the Arab world. 

King Salman has brought radical change to the traditional process of Saudi succession. That said, his actions have been blessed by a clear majority of  the Allegiance Council — 28 out of 34 members. The council consists of the surviving sons of Abdulaziz, including grandsons whose fathers are deceased, incapacitated or unwilling to serve on the council, and the sons of the king and crown prince. It was created by King Abdullah in 2007 to formalize the succession process by appointing a new king or crown prince. Yet, in reality, the council's main purpose is to approve whoever the monarch appoints. While the royal family seems to have rallied behind the new king, the question that remains is how will the monarchy sustain itself in an uncertain future, especially as the two Mohammeds share power while the current monarch gradually fades from the picture.

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