March 31, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Why It Matters: Saudi Arabia’s Line of Succession
On March 27, 2014, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz appointed his half-brother Prince Muqrin as deputy crown prince, or second in line to the throne behind the current crown prince, and also half-brother, Prince Salman. While this unprecedented declaration was intended to highlight stability and continuity for the ruling house of Saud, it also highlights that the world’s largest oil exporter is about to enter a new and unsettled succession era.
Approaching his 69th birthday, Prince Muqrin is the youngest of the remaining sons of King Abdul Aziz, founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia. However, youth is a relative term when describing Saudi leaders. For comparison’s sake, Ronald Reagan was the oldest elected president in US history, the same age as Muqrin is now, and when he left office at the age of 76, Reagan was still two years younger than the current age of Crown Prince Salman. At 89, King Abdullah is the same age as the oldest living former US president, George H.W. Bush, who left office 22 years ago.
Why this matters is that Saudi Arabia is fast approaching the time where the king—the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques—won’t be a son of the founder. This change speaks to family dynamics and the complexity of succession politics. With this reality in mind, King Abdullah instituted an Allegiance Council in 2006 to help select future crown princes. However, the council’s recommendations are non-binding, and its influence is unclear. What is quite clear, though, is that the rulers of Saudi Arabia are determined to control the pace of change, which is a particular challenge as the region convulses with transformation. This most recent decree shows how much King Abdullah is working to address the issue.
The designation of Muqrin as the deputy crown prince gives rise to more than the usual level of palace intrigue. King Abdullah has made some efforts at increased governmental transparency and social reform; however, the Saud family remains opaque to outsiders when it comes to internal machinations and deliberations. As for understanding the complexities of a unified house, the Saudi ruling family has approximately 15,000 members, with six major branches and numerous more cadet parts, with consequent jockeying for position and power. There have been minor skirmishes in every succession, but the prerogative of the king to name his successor has held steady.
King Abdullah’s decision to name Muqrin as deputy crown prince in effect undermines Salman’s power to name his own successor, leading to speculation as to the king’s reasoning. A clue might be in the king’s appointment of his son Mutaib as second deputy premier, the unofficial but traditional position for the person thought to be the next crown prince. This suggests that King Abdullah is maneuvering to put his son on the throne after Muqrin, bypassing a long list of older candidates among the many grandsons of Abdul Aziz. And again, youth is relative here—Mutaib is already 62 years old. It also might be that the king sought to diminish the power of the “Sudairi Seven” of the family that has held significant influence for 60 years (named for the seven sons of Abdul Aziz’s wife Hassa Sudairi, which includes the late King Fahd and current Crown Pince Salman).
The timing of the decree is important as well, coinciding with the visit of President Obama, and, perhaps, preempting potential speculation on the direction of succession. King Abdullah likely intended the appointment to show that internal Saudi dynamics and not external pressures and preferences would drive his decisions as to who replaces him. His decade-long status as crown prince and de facto ruler after King Fahd’s 1995 stroke undoubtedly has helped ensure the king’s interest in an effective transition.
This leaves the question of why King Abdullah would seek to postpone the succession process for the next generation—he could have decreed Mutaib the deputy successor, for example. But it appears in the thinking of the ruler, there’s wisdom in implementing a two-step process, with Muqrin bridging the generational shift.
With a median age well under the world average of 29 years, Saudi Arabia’s growing population is maturing in a time of technological and regional transformation, and this may yet create new pressures for a leadership where 69 years old is considered relatively young. With external concerns of a nuclear-armed Iran, continuing devastation of the Syrian civil war, and threatening regional turmoil, the Saudi ruling family will want to avoid internal tensions exacerbated by a power struggle. It remains to be seen if King Abdullah’s decrees will meet that objective.
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