May 20, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Complexities of Saudi Succession

• With an eye to the future, King Abdullah continues to consolidate the power of his branch of al-Saud

• The line of succession to the throne is complicated by the need to transition to the next generation of leadership

• Demographics and a popular desire for change present a further challenge.



Last week, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appointed his son, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, to be Governor of Riyadh Province, a powerful position that further consolidates the power of Abdullah’s offspring as time inexorably forces the monarchy to prepare for a generational shift in the control of the Kingdom.

King Abdullah is the fifth son of the founder of the Kingdom to become King, and he has two more brothers, Prince Salman and Prince Muqrin, lined up to succeed him—a sensible precaution as he moves through his nineties. But two Crown Princes, also brothers, have already predeceased Abdullah, and Salman is rumored to have Alzheimer’s disease, which is the likely reason that Abdullah appointed Muqrin to a new position of Deputy Crown Prince in April.

Prince Muqrin is 69 and appears in good health. He is not of any particular bloc or faction within the Saud family, and so can be viewed as the right guardian to bridge the generational gap and pass the throne to the next generation of the founder's sons. But King Abdullah feels the tug of his own mortality, and after 20 years in charge, first as Crown Prince during the last ten years of his brother King Fahd’s life, and then as King himself, he knows very well the internal and external problems of the Kingdom, which need increasingly dextrous handling.

Leaving aside the resurgence of Iran, discord among the Arab Gulf States, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ongoing disaster in Syria, and disagreements with the US, there are also the internal challenges of democracy and demographics. Saudi Arabia is a long way from offering every man and, more especially, every woman, a say in how the country is governed, but with a growing population, a sizeable youth bulge (about half the country’s 30 million people are under 25), and increasing awareness of the outside world through the ubiquity of social media (Internet penetration is about 50%), the pressure for change can only grow.

A further challenge is that this pressure comes not just from a more liberal view of how the country should be governed but also from a more conservative one. Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has found outlets for the most radical of its citizens, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Syria, but some come back, and the threat to the Kingdom is real enough for the King to have issued a decree in February that banned participation in foreign wars and any support for extremist groups. Nonetheless, there may still be around 2,000 Saudis fighting in Syria, and several thousand more in Yemen and Iraq.

Much of the work to check the internal threat from extremism has been supervised by Minister of the Interior, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, whose father, one of the “Sudairi Seven” sons of the Kingdom’s founder, was crown prince until his death in 2012. Prince Muhammad, who brooks no tolerance for extremism, is a popular candidate to take over as King in due course, and he received a further boost in his standing when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, whose father had also been Crown Prince, was sacked from his position in charge of Saudi Arabia’s aggressive Syria policy. Prince Bandar’s brother has also just been removed from his position as Deputy Defence Minister.

King Abdullah has been a reformist, even if the pace of change has seemed slow and hesitant from the outside. But the need to preserve internal stability has trumped any other objective. Abdullah’s appointment of his son Turki as Governor of Riyadh Province, to join his brother Mishaal, who is Governor of Mecca Province, and Abdullah’s eldest son, Mutaib, who is head of the Saudi National Guard and a strong contender to become King eventually, makes a powerful force for continuity, especially if Prince Muhammad is seen as an asset rather than as a threat. But it is not just who will be King that matters, it is how he will rule and the role that Saudi Arabia will play in the wider world.

The succession to the throne may be a big deal, but the King is also the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and the challenge that lies at the heart of Saudi stability and the stability of many other areas of the Muslim world, is the problem of religious extremism. For now, the Saudi Arabian authorities are still on top of the extremist threat internally, but just as with the succession issue, time is of the essence as the Kingdom’s citizens look increasingly for change.



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