jump to navigation

Breaking the Saudi Rules of Succession 28, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

The following article was published by the Washington Post in their longer-form blog on 27 May 2015.

__

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 overtime 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 implicitlydescribed 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 formerambassadors 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 with60 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.

Advertisements

Grappling With the Implications of Saudi Arabia’s Transition 26, February 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

KSA tree

On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud died and his half-brother, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, in a smooth transition, became King. This was the sixth succession in Saudi Arabia since it formally became ‘Saudi’ Arabia in 1932 under King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (d.1953).

So far, each Saudi ruler has been a son of the state’s founder, Abdul-Aziz. The first three kings (Abdul-Aziz, Saud, and Faisal) were in their fifties on ascending to the throne, their next two successors (Khalid and Fahd) were in their sixties, Abdullah was in his 70s when he became regent and in his 80s when he finally became King. Salman was three weeks into his 79th year when he became King. This mode of succession begs the question of what will the Kingdom do now that it is rapidly running out of compos mentis sons of Abdul-Aziz. This succession event was more important, therefore, in terms of what it sets in motion regarding the transition to the new generation than for weighing up the similarities and differences of Kings Abdullah and Salman.

The ministerial merry-go-round

Less than two months after eight new ministers were appointed under Abdullah, on assuming power, Salman swiftly instigated a raft of decrees shuffling the Saudi chess board once more. But, rather than the relatively cosmetic changes of the ministerial reshuffle of 8 December 2014, Salman’s changes concerned more important ministries and personalities. Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, a former intelligence chief, close US-ally (sometimes referred to as ‘Bandar bin Bush’), recently in charge of the Syria file, and who retained a key position advising Abdullah and as the head of the national security council, was sacked. Indeed, the council itself was dissolved, as were a dozen other committees and quangos. The upshot of this is the significant centralisation of the work of these defunct institutions to two bodies: the Council for Economic Development Affairs (CEDA) and the Council for Political and Security Affairs (CPSA).

One of Salman’s sons from his second marriage, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS), has gained significantly in the reshuffle. Aged somewhere between 29 and 35, MbS heads the hugely powerful CEDA institution. Though his father the King has followed the tradition of being his own Prime Minister, in effect, the purview of this position means that MbS is ‘Prime Minister in training.’ Of equal significance was his promotion to become the world’s youngest Minister of Defence; quite a surprise given his lack of a military background. He remains the head of his father’s court and so replaced the arch insider and power broker Khalid al-Tuwaijri , who was the head of the Royal Court for Abdullah and who is, according to some reports, now under house arrest.

Only Mohammed bin Naif al-Saud (MbN) can claim to have benefitted as well from the reshuffle. The 55 year-old MbN, a son of a former long-term Minister of the Interior and Crown Prince, Naif bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, has long been regarded as one of the most capable and efficient Ministers and consequently seen as primus inter pares of the second generation Princes in the race for the top job. He was promoted and officially anointed by the Allegiance Council [a body formed in 2006 to ratify such matters] as second-in-line to the throne. Though competition remains, as the second-in-line and as the head of the powerful CPSA, he is well positioned. In between MbN and the top job is Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the 69 year-old promoted to Crown Prince by Salman. That his mother was a Yemeni slave girl was often assumed to put him out of the reckoning for the position of King, but he now finds himself a heartbeat from ultimate power.

So what?

Rooting around in the tactical weeds of the who, what, and why of the changes in Saudi Arabia’s elite politics is, while interesting, not necessarily that useful. Firstly, it is too early to draw any substantive conclusions as to the wider ramifications of the changes. Secondly, it is a debatable point as to whether it is more generally possible to accurately plot the trajectory of change in the Kingdom. So opaque is the politics that deveining a link between action and reaction, of not confusing causation with mere correlation, is tediously difficult.

An analyst wanting to paint a doom-laden picture could point to the replacement of the head of the infamous Saudi religious police who was, much to the anger of those within the organisation, (slowly) reforming the medieval intuition. Similarly, the Game of Thrones-style replacement of two of Abdullah’s sons from positions of influence could easily be spun into a narrative of archetypal Machiavellian cutting and thrusting political intrigue. The blowing of $32 billion on gifts and bonuses for Saudis – a sum, as Hubbard notes, larger than Africa’s largest annual budget in Nigeria – also does not inspire confidence as to wider issues of fiscal prudence.

Those in search of a more positive twist could point to the technocratic appointment of a trained lawyer as the head of the stock market regulator, the installation of a military-trained commoner as intelligence chief, or the appointment of the editor of the secular al-Arabiya news channel as Information Minister. Other examples of pragmatism reining over politics include the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, and, crucially, petroleum and mineral resources remaining in post.

The best an analyst can do is to humbly plot the potential contours of the implications of the changes starting with what seems to be certain.

The known knowns

Salman has been at the heart of Saudi decision making for much of the past half-century. Though Abdullah is believed to have had a significant impact on the direction of Saudi policies, there is no evidence that suggests that Salman was an especially reluctant follower. Abdullah, after all, made him his Crown Prince. Some kind of about-turn in the pace of glacially slow reform – with occasional faster spurts – instigated by Abdullah seems unlikely.

With a strong record within the Kingdom for probity and having dealt relatively effectively with a wave of bombings in the mid and late-2000s (including being nearly killed by the world’s first rectal-bomb), and an apparently strong relationship with America too, MbN remains the favourite to be the first leader of Saudi Arabia from the new generation.

But Salman’s changes have quite clearly catapulted his young son, MbS, into the wider reckoning. No one else has as influential a seat in both the economic and the security camps in Saudi Arabia, not to mention his role as gatekeeper to his father’s court.

While MbN seems to offer a tried and tested safe pair of hands, MbS does not. He has no pedigree of any import whatsoever to take to his new, centrally important roles in the Kingdom. Doubtless his father saw some signs within him that persuaded him to heroically over-promote this son over others, but these skills are yet to be seen on the wider stage.

The known unknowns

Given the near-vertical rise of MbS and the real power that he now wields but the profound lack of knowledge about his skills, this situation must be classified as concerning. Partly this is an issue of basic capability of the Saudi-educated young Prince. But partly this is about the installation of an entirely untried and untested Prince at the centre of Saudi politics for, potentially, a number of decades. Four Deputy Defence Ministers have been sacked in the last 15 months alone, which some analysts suggest may be to do with MbS’s growing influence; a notion given more credence now that he has been appointed Minister of Defence. This could, of course, be a good thing: perhaps he demands a level of professionalism that they could not meet; equally, perhaps the opposite is the case.

Linked to this issue is the wider speculation surrounding the battle for prominence of the Princes of the next generation. Given the historical importance of a military background or otherwise developing strong connections to some form of hard-power, there are three key princes: MbN the Minister of the Interior and head of the security-orientated committee, MbS as the Minister of Defence, and Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, who, though he has lost influence and backing of his brothers who were sacked from their Governorship roles, retains a loyal, effective, fighting force (and his brothers could well return).

La Plus Ca Change? 

Eschewing the fatalistic supposition that all of Saudi politics belongs to the realm of the unknown unknowns, it is tempting to conclude that the near-term successions are not looking too challenging. Muqrin is in line to take the throne and, though the strength of his mandate on becoming Crown Prince (i.e. the number of votes he received in the Allegiance Council) is not known, it may be assumed that he will succeed. But even if he does not, the only logical alternative in view at this juncture is MbN usurping him. Such an outcome, though not immediately likely, does not present too problematic a challenge.

Perhaps the only clear outcome from this past transition is that issues surrounding jumping down a generation have actually been complicated, potentially worryingly so, and not simplified. If MbN had been made second deputy Crown Prince amid a cabinet reshuffle, then the only reasonable conclusion would have been to see him as a clear favourite. But the rise of MbS in and of itself poses MbN a direct challenger with the portfolios to gather support and influence.