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Friday 30 January 2015

A Game of Thrones: Royal Succession in Saudi Arabia

Strategic Assessment | Volume 17 | No. 4 | January 2015

A Game of Thrones:
Royal Succession in Saudi Arabia

The Formation of the Principles of Succession

To a large extent, maintaining regime stability in Saudi Arabia relates to the
transition of power among brothers rather than from father to son. It may
be that this custom has ensured successors with the requisite experience
to manage affairs of state, but it has also reduced the pool of potential
heirs, resulting in the possibility that Saudi Arabia’s aging leadership
may negatively affect the nation’s stability.
Concern about succession
struggles is not groundless, as the kingdom’s selection process is not
entirely institutionalized. Problems concerning succession of governance
in monarchies are not unique to Saudi Arabia – Oman too could face them –
but the status and importance of Saudi Arabia as the “custodian” of Islam’s
holy sites, its possession of the world’s largest oil reserves, and its role
as the leading political and military power among the Gulf’s Arab states
lends urgency to the Saudi situation. The advanced age and deteriorating
health of King Salman and the nomination of Muhammad bin Nayef as
the kingdom’s new deputy crown prince suggest that a transition of power
to the grandsons’ generation, or at least a decision on the identity of the
next heir, is closer than previously thought.

The formation of the process of succession in Saudi Arabia began
during the reign of the country’s first king and the founder of the modern
Saudi state, Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud. When the modern Saudi
state was founded in 1932, the political structure relied primarily on the
personal loyalty of the leaders of the dominant tribes to the king. Ibn Saud’s
principal task was to turn a regionalized tribal entity into a modern state
with an effective central government. Attaining this goal also involved the
ability to transfer the reins of government in a way that would not jeopardize
the kingdom’s stability. In 1933, he declared Saud as his successor, clearly
intending to preserve the reins of control in the hands of his own family.1
To prevent intra-family power struggles, he announced already then that
Faisal would be the second in line to the throne after Saud.2 Ibn Saud’s
other sons were placed in key positions of the central government, ensuring
that when the time came, they would enjoy legitimacy as rulers and have
experience in managing the affairs of state.3 The desire for stability and
consensus was a key feature in the process of building the state’s institutions
and continues to characterize the kingdom to this day.

Ibn Saud died without leaving a law defining royal succession, but the
custom of power transfer among his sons was established, along with other
principles of power transfer. The subsequent transfer of power to Faisal also
entrenched the function of the ulama in providing the imprimatur to the
Saudi royal family’s decision. This custom not only provides the new king
with religious legitimacy to rule, but also represents a stamp of approval
of the historical alliance between the royal house and the Wahhabi strain
of Islam (even though the ulama, whose members are appointed by the
king, has never taken an independent stance on the transition of power
and has always given its approval to the candidate deemed acceptable in
the House of Saud family forum).

According to tribal custom, primogeniture was a decisive factor in
succession, a custom also deeply rooted in the succession of Saudi rulers.
Faisal, however, did not appoint his heir until 1965, a year after his own
ascension to the throne, so as to make sure that the next crown prince would
be worthy of the appointment. This decision entrenched the principle
whereby the eldest brother – provided he is qualified – is appointed as heir
apparent. Faisal divided authority among princes in specific disciplines
and provinces and created a balance of power within the royal family so
that the king functioned as the first among equals, and to a large extent his
power depended on the princes.4 Although this structure did not prevent
power struggles within the family, it did contribute toward stability. The heir
apparent, Khaled, ascended the throne in 1975 after Faisal’s assassination
and was crowned king the very same day. His younger brother, Fahd, had
been appointed deputy crown prince during Faisal’s reign and so ascended
the throne immediately upon Khaled’s death in 1982.
Power struggles among the sons of Ibn Saud erupted more than once,
as a result of the fact that they were not full brothers and leading to the
Strategic Assessment | Volume 17 | No. 4 | January 2015
Yoel Guzansky | A Game of Thrones : Royal Succession in Saudi Arabia
creation of political camps defined by family lines. The prominent branch
was the Sudairi, a group of seven princes born to the same mother and
considered the most influential group in the family elite (the name is that
of the tribe of their mother, Hassa Bint Ahmad al-Sudairi). Faisal worked
to create a balance among the family’s various branches and distributed
the high ranking jobs among them, including control of the armed forces.
Even now, the balance is largely intact: King Salman’s son (a Sudairi),
holds the defense portfolio, while Mutaib, son of the late King Abdullah,
commands the National Guard.

Attempts to Institutionalize the Process

In the early 1990s, Fahd began to formalize Saudi Arabia’s process of
succession. The stationing of US troops on Saudi soil and to some extent
Saudi Arabia’s support for the Israeli-Arab peace process that started in
Madrid ran into opposition from radical religious circles, which dared to
challenge the legitimacy of the House of Saud.5 This opposition pushed
the kingdom to establish an advisory council (albeit one without any real
power) and, for the first time, also enshrine in law the manner of transfer
of power. Paragraph 5 of the Basic Law of Governance (1992) determines
that the throne will pass to Ibn Saud’s sons and grandsons.6
Fahd determined that only Ibn Saud’s sons and their sons would be
able to serve as king and be appointed crown prince, thereby allowing – at
least on paper – the princes of the generation of Ibn Saud’s grandchildren
to claim the throne. Furthermore, Fahd made it clear that the king would
be chosen on the basis of his qualifications and abilities and not just by
age, as had been the custom.7 While this formulation enshrined the basic
principles in law, it did not spell out explicit directives or defined criteria
for what constitutes the most qualified candidate, leaving the selection of
the heir apparent an issue to be settled by the king and family consensus. In
the long term, the kingdom cannot avoid translating the law into practice,
even if the transition of power becomes more complicated as the crown
goes to the grandsons’ generation: balancing the interests of the different
family branches can be expected to become a much more delicate, complex
matter by virtue of the fact that the ambitions and interests of numerous
princes – whose patience is not necessarily a given – must be taken into
The deteriorating health of King Fahd, who suffered a stroke in 1995,
resulted in the reins of power being handed to Abdullah. Although Fahd’s
health did not allow him to manage the kingdom’s affairs in practice, the
rivalry between Abdullah and the Sudairi camp prevented him from earning
the loyalty of the princes and being crowned officially until Fahd’s death in
2005.9 Abdullah’s official reign was also marked by tensions between him
and the Sudairis when Abdullah, breaking with family tradition, chose not
to appoint a second successor until 2009, when Nayef was named second
deputy to the prime minister as a result of Sultan’s frail health and concern
that a vacuum in governance might be created.10

Abdullah continue to entrench the succession arrangements and
founded the Allegiance Council. Announced in 2006, it has 34 princes,
all sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud, in charge of helping the next king
choose his successor and arrange for the orderly transfer of power. The
council is also supposed to serve as an interim government in case both
the king and his heir die or are unable to function. One may also see the
establishment of the council as Abdullah’s attempt to limit the Sudairis’
influence: although they still hold many key positions in the kingdom,
they are restricted on the council, their numbers being identical to those
of the other representatives. In any case, however, the council represents
the formalization of the kingdom’s custom since the death of Ibn Saud,
whereby decisions on succession are made by the king after a consensus
is reached in the family forum.

Although he established the council, King Abdullah involved it only
sparingly in making decisions about his heirs. Indeed, upon establishing
the council, Abdullah declared it would begin operating only after his
own death, and therefore he was not obligated to consult it in appointing
the crown prince. Thus, Nayef’s 2009 appointment to second successor
to the throne seems to have been Abdullah’s own decision, without any
input from the council. When Nayef passed away eight months after his
appointment, Abdullah – in a rapid move intended to prevent strife and
project stability and continuity – declared Salman heir without asking for
the council’s approval.11 But in 2014, when Abdullah named Muqrin second
successor, the council was convened: the appointment was supported with
the votes of only some three-quarters of the council members.12 The fact
that many princes are still unhappy with the appointment is liable to place
obstacles in Muqrin’s way to the throne, and if and when he is chosen, they
may well make it difficult for him to function and try to curb his power.
Key positions in the kingdom are another source of political clout and
influence. Often, the holder of a senior position appoints his cronies as
deputies and successors so that it all becomes a family affair. This was
the case with the Sudairis who appointed one another, resulting in their
control of the defense and interior ministries for more than four decades.
The political power embedded in such positions could also explain why
Abdullah insisted on reserving the position of commander of the National
Guard for himself even after he was tapped to become deputy crown prince.
It is possible that he was worried that once Prince Fahd – who was the heir
apparent at that time – ascended the throne, he would oust him from that
position in favor of Sultan. The command of the National Guard and the
loyalty Abdullah achieved were a significant counterweight to the Sudairi
front and the regular army, then under Sultan’s command.
The transition to the grandsons’ generation may well prove a complex
process. The traditional power centers, such as tribal connections, would
seem to be less significant now than they were in the past. The many
grandsons and the division into many sub-branches within the family are
therefore a potential threat to the kingdom’s stability.

The Challenges of Succession

Until recently the key challenge facing the Saudi royal household as it
sets out to appoint future successors is the aging of the first generation of
Ibn Saud’s offspring. The current king, 80-year old Salman, is ill, and the
potential pool of successors among Ibn Saud’s sons is shrinking, forcing
Saudi Arabia to prepare for the scepter being passed to the grandsons. The
Basic Law of Governance laid the constitutional foundation for this move,
but the process itself is liable to be complex and may involve renewed
power struggles within the family.

Increasing the uncertainty is the fact that the process lacks transparency.
Decisions are made within a small family forum and the announcement
by the royal family comes only after the decision is made. An analysis of
the situation and assessments of potential successors can therefore only
be undertaken on the basis of the small amount of information leaking out
of internal discussions and a survey of candidates currently holding key
positions. Furthermore, any analysis must also consider other candidaterelated
data of equivalent weight, such as lineage, health, support among
the princes, maternal origins, and closeness to the king. In the past, the
ability to reach a consensus within the small family forum, numbering
several dozens of princes, was the key to maintaining governing stability
in Saudi Arabia. By contrast, the number of Ibn Saud’s grandsons is now
in the hundreds.

At the same time, one cannot say that the Saudi leadership is reaching
this historic crossroads totally unprepared. Provisions to transfer the reins
of government to the next generation began more than two decades ago
when the Basic Law of Governance was passed, underscoring that the royal
household is aware that the transition is liable to represent a stiff challenge.
Furthermore, in recent years several princes of the grandsons’ generation
have been promoted to ministers and governors of important provinces.
As the number of grandsons serving in senior positions increases, so does
the number of political power centers in the kingdom: every governor or
minister wields extensive authority in his field, representing a political
camp of his own (figure 1). These developments are liable to increase
competition for appointments and positions at all echelons of the political
system in Saudi Arabia, and not only for the throne itself. Still, despite
the large number of Ibn Saud’s grandsons, only a few have the requisite
experience and stature to be considered potential successors. Of Ibn Saud’s
grandsons, the only two in truly significant positions are Interior Minister
Muhammad bin Salman, 30, the defense minister and chief of his father’s
royal court (appointed in 2015), and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, 63, who
in 2013 was appointed to command the National Guard, the kingdom’s
most important security establishment.

Since the start of the regional upheavals, perhaps out of fear of their
implications, Abdullah has made several important appointments.13 In
addition to promoting his son Mutaib to the rank of cabinet minister,
Abdullah appointed his third son, Abdulaziz, to serve as deputy to Foreign
Minister Saud al-Faisal. Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister since
1975, is also not in the best of health, and the king hopes that Abdulaziz
will take al-Faisal’s place when he steps down. Another son, Mashal, was
appointed governor of Mecca, the most important province in Islam and the
second most important province in the kingdom. His seventh son, Turki,
a fighter pilot by training, was made governor of the capital city of Riyadh
in 2014. This pattern of appointing relatives is standard. Kings appointed
their sons the moment they ascended the throne: Faisal appointed his
sons Saud, Turki, and Khaled to key positions, ensuring their high status
to this day. The sons of Sultan, Nayef, and Salman also came to occupy
senior positions thanks to their fathers’ stature. Thus, Abdullah’s recent
appointments may be seen as an attempt to provide the royal family with
satisfactory, experienced candidates who can, when the time comes, fill
the void left by Ibn Saud’s aging sons, but also – and primarily – his desire
to give his sons an edge in the future struggle for the crown after his death.

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