January 26, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Royal Succession

• Comments about the inner workings of the Saudi royal family, and the deal that led to the succession plan, reflect the many questions that remain unanswered

• Nothing is certain, but a shrinking of the family circle of power is inevitable

• However, this is not a good time for internal wrangling within the Kingdom, as it faces a host of regional crises and challenges

• Saudi Arabia needs to provide the leadership that is so desperately lacking in the Middle East.


The royal succession in Saudi Arabia has given rise to much speculation about what went on behind the scenes both before and immediately after the death of King Abdullah. Saudi watchers are wondering how long the deal will last, whether the surviving sons and grandsons of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the Kingdom’s founder, and his Sudairi wife, Hassa, which include King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, have effectively mounted a coup against the sons of King Abdullah and other royal factions; whether the regional and security policies of Abdullah are now under pressure; whether there will be a period of significant change among the senior echelon of the Saudi government, and what the consequences might be for the Kingdom’s stability.

It is a well-established saying that those who know most about the Saudi royal family say the least, and those who know least say the most. The family has so far always seen its interests best served by limiting to some extent the ruling clique to a circle of close relatives who may often quarrel over personal status, but keep their disagreements out of sight. Even if individually dissatisfied by the division of power, all members benefit sufficiently from the family business not to jeopardize its future. However, the succession to the next generation, when it comes, will require the family to narrow down the ruling circle once again, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of inclusion. There will be just too many descendants of the current group to keep them all in positions of influence. There may even have to be some thinning of the Sudairi clan.

There can be few people within or outside the Kingdom who would disagree with the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as the first prospective king to be drawn from the next generation. He is popular, effective, hardworking, and a good communicator. He holds and manages the key security portfolios of the Kingdom. Furthermore, he has no sons, making him less threatening to other family members as a potential dynast. But this in turn means that the Saudi tradition of lateral rather than vertical succession will continue—a basic fault line in the Kingdom’s stability. Furthermore, Mohamed must survive whatever machinations occur within the family during the rule of Salman, who has already appointed his son both defense minister and head of the royal court, and the heir apparent, Prince Muqrin, who is widely thought to be the guardian of the interests of King Abdullah’s son Mutaib.

This might not matter much beyond the pages of a gossip magazine were not Saudi Arabia’s position in the Middle East so crucial. The Kingdom is in a position to shape events in both the short and medium term, not just in Syria and Iraq, but throughout the Arab world. That includes two other failed states: Libya and Yemen. The problems that have arisen from the collapse of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East can still be turned into opportunities, but that will require extraordinary leadership and strength of character that is not yet apparent in the wider Middle East. Despite an increasingly inter-connected world, local rulers and their rivals are too concerned with establishing and expanding their power bases to address what is going on around them. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have the most potential to help their fellow Arabs out of the mire, but it will require unity and vision. King Salman and his closest advisors should be strong enough to rebuild alliances and find common ground within the GCC, despite the strong differences of opinion that exist among its members. But he will not be helped if the royal family splits and squabbles. Traditionally, things move slowly in Saudi Arabia, but time is not on its side.


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