On April 29, 2015, King Salman of Saudi Arabia appointed Mohammed bin Nayef, a grandson of the state’s founder, second-in-line to the throne as crown prince and placed Mohammed bin Salman, a 29-year-old prince, third-in-line as deputy crown prince. The major change comes just months after Salman acceded to the throne on Jan. 23, following the death of his half-brother Abdullah. The relatively seamless transition is surprising after many years of fevered speculation about the complications surrounding what might happen when Saudi Arabia’s leadership finally jumped down a generation instead of just passing the kingly baton from brother to brother. What does this mean for our understanding of power dynamics in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
The latter appointment in particular challenges the expectations of both scholars and analysts. For instance, Saudi-focused scholars, such as Gregory Gause, as well as analysts, such as Simon Henderson, have tended to cogently emphasize the importance of age as a factor in determining positions of authority. How then to explain the appointment of 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to one of the most important positions in the land?
Other popularly cited explanations for royal succession also fall short in explaining the appointment. Henderson has suggested a range of other important factors, such as being a “good Muslim,” having a suitable Saudi lineage, possessing experience and acumen, being popular and offering stability. But again, the most recent changes suggest that some of these attributes – seniority, possessing experience and acumen and perhaps being popular – could be jettisoned with ease when the need arose. The time is therefore ripe to reconsider some of the once self-evident truths that underpin understandings of Saudi Arabia’s political workings
First, seniority within the ranks of the royal family has often been heralded as the primus inter pares factor underpinning the rules of succession in Saudi Arabia. The current Saudi state was united by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1932 when he was 56 years old. Until today, rule has been passed among Abdulaziz’s sons. In order of their accession to the throne, Saud was born around 1902, Faisal 1906, Khalid 1913, Fahd 1921, Abdullah 1924 and Salman 1935. Saud and Faisal were in their 50s when they took power, Khalid and Fahd were in their 60s, and Abdullah and Salman were in their 70s. Unsurprisingly, age has been seen as a “preeminent qualification” in determining the order of ascending to the throne, according to Henderson’s 1994 study and repeated in his 2009 “After Abdullah.” The apparent importance of age fits with widespread understandings of the “enormous meaning” of seniority within the royal family and Saudi society.
But age is not enough. Given that Abdulaziz is reputed to have fathered around 100 children by dozens of wives, older sons have been passed over time and again, particularly more recently. So age has been a shaping, if not a determining factor. Saudi social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed has gone as far as to suggest that there has long been “no serious commitment to seniority.” Nevertheless, the meteoric rise of Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince is an astonishing promotion for a man so young.
The rise of the new king’s son suggests that intra-family machinations deserve more attention. Analysts Henderson, Daryl Champion, Joseph A. Kechichian and Thomas W. Lippman have pointed to the importance of the Sudairi section of the Saud family. The name stems from Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, who is often referred to as Abdulaziz’s most important wife and whose children have come to dominate Saudi politics in recent decades. There is much to support such a reading. Though King Abdullah ruled with three Sudairi crown princes (two of whom died), he represented for the Sudairis an interregnum between two Sudairi kings, Fahd and Salman. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior, two of the most important and influential in Saudi Arabia’s power structure, have been led by Sudairis for over 50 years. The current crown prince and deputy crown prince are both younger generation Sudairis and have centralized control of the key economic and security councils under their auspices.
What does this actually mean, though? The Sudairis are often implicitly described as something approaching a unitary actor in direct, near-zero-sum competition with other groupings led by, say, former king Abdullah. Such suggestions make intuitive sense at the moment, with such a successful Sudairi full-court-press swamping key positions. But the cohesiveness of such groupings is questioned by Gause and Rasheed who frequently and persuasively frame these associations as being temporary and more “manifested in specific historical and political contexts.” The hint behind such assertions is that Sudairi cohesion is far from automatic.
A more positive spin, marketed by commentators ranging from former ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, pliant local newspapers, Washington-based Saudi Arabian lobbying organizations and, most recently, the former head of Britain’s external intelligence agency, has to do with what is being called an “embryonic embrace of meritocracy” taking hold in Saudi Arabia. The removal of Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz – who served as crown prince from January to April 2015 – might be explained by his lineage. Muqrin’s mother was a Yemeni slave, something that tended to rule him out as a potential successor as far as many Saudi-watchers were concerned before he was put in line to the throne – at which point the ever-flexible commentariat brushed off his heritage as hardly mattering at all. Nevertheless, few would disagree that his replacement with Mohammed bin Nayef is something of an upgrade in efficacy, judging by the new crown prince’s impressive domestic and international reputation. Similarly, the world’s longest serving foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, recently shuffled out of the portfolio he held for 40 years, has been plagued by illness and hospital visits for years.
Yet, any semblance of meritocracy falls apart with the colossal (over) promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to defense minister, to head of the Economic and Development Affairs Council, chairman of Saudi Aramco’s Supreme Council and now to third-in-line to the throne. For a young man with negligible experience in these (or any other senior) roles, it is difficult to see how it could possibly be interpreted as meritocratic in nature – though his promotion may be an attempt to reflect Saudi Arabia’s youth with 60 percent of the population being under 21 years of age.
What about the rules? The key institutional innovation here was the 2006 creation of a 35-member Allegiance Council to agree upon and ratify succession decisions for future monarchs. In March 2014, King Abdullah used the council to rubber-stamp Muqrin as third-in-line to the throne and the statement from the Royal Court declared that this order “shall not be amended or replaced by any means or by whomsoever.” Abdullah seemingly tried to lock in Muqrin as crown prince because Muqrin, lacking a suitable heir, would likely have nominated one of Abdullah’s sons as his crown prince, thus avoiding the taboo of nominating one’s own son.
But this potential move was checkmated and the “irreversible” decree was easily dismissed. With Salman reversing Abdullah’s edict and undercutting the Allegiance Council’s initial decision, unseating a crown prince suddenly looks curiously straightforward. The council, then, appears to function more as a public relations approval body, with the real politics being done behind the scenes. A scenario where there is genuine disagreement in the council is possible to foresee, but would most likely be overcome firstly by closed-door politics or secondly by being bypassed by royal decree.
Rules, decrees, taboos and notional Allegiance Council mandates are there, it turns out, to be broken. Similarly, issues of age and seniority can be easily brushed aside in the short term at least. A certain acknowledgement of the importance of meritocracy, mostly around the edges, is seen as desirable – perhaps a counterweight, even – to naked nepotism at the heart of the issue. The importance of the small Sudairi clique is at best a useful term to group together a subset of the Saud family who continue to play the game of family politics effectively thus far. But its unity should not necessarily be taken for granted.
While ousting Muqrin was a coup for the Sudairis, it was, perhaps first and foremost, a coup for Salman himself – but with unpredictable results. This proves a salient reminder for scholars as to the ultimately changeable nature of domestic politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf – and the seemingly unrestricted power that leaders can exert. The promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince has removed seniority as a decisive factor in Saudi politics in the short-term at least, though Gause et al’s emphasis on the importance of seniority may be an issue that returns in the future. But in the meantime, Salman has increased the players in the game. The zero-sum promotion of a prince inevitably leaves those not selected disgruntled and widens the field with a whole new age bracket of the royal family realizing that they too – all of a sudden – have a legitimate claim on a senior role. Salman’s flouting of tradition provides such princes with extra ammunition in plotting their bids for power. The ultimate test will come when Salman, a 79-year old with significant health problems, shuffles off this mortal coil. Saudi history is not kind to sons of kings who pass away, and with Salman’s precedent-setting unpicking his predecessor’s decree and his bypassing of the Allegiance Council, Mohammed bin Salman in particular is eminently removable.
David B. Roberts is an assistant professor at King’s College London. He tweets @thegulfblog.