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Breaking the Saudi Rules of Succession 28, May 2015

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

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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.

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Saudi Arabia’s succession: runners, riders, and dynamics 16, June 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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The key positions in Saudi Arabia are still mostly held by sons of the founder the modern Saudi state, Abdulaziz Al Saud (or Ibn Saud, as he is commonly known). This means that those in power are often exceedingly old and thus in ill-health and the death of two Crown Princes within nine months testifies to this concern.

There is a paradoxical issue here. On the one hand, the passing of power from one man to the next does not make a huge amount of difference. Change in Saudi Arabia occurs at a glacial pace. There is just no room for a new, dynamic leader to take the top job, ‘clean house’, and institute significant changes. Thus, there is no real concern that immediate policies and practices will change. However, simultaneously, Saudi Arabia’s politics is heading towards a cliff of some description. It is running out of sons of Ibn Saud and the stints in power of coming Kings will necessarily be short. There need to be practices and procedures in place to manage the transition to the next generation, the grandsons of Ibn Saud. An Allegiance Council was set up to deal with this but this is essentially untested and everyone is fully aware that it will only play a role if it is allowed to by the more powerful Princes.

Another key piece of the succession pie lies in the blocks of power within the Kingdom.

The Sudairis

Carrying a disproportionate amount of sway are the descendants of Ibn Saud and his marriage to his favored wife, Princess Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. Former King Fahd was the leader of this block and held power – nominally at least – from 1982 to 2005 allowing several Sudairi to be firmly inculcated into seats of power in Saudi Arabia. Despite this ‘good start’, this branch has suffered recently so some degree, with the deaths of Crown Prince Sultan in 2011 and Crown Prince Nayef.

Nevertheless Sudairis still include Defence Minister Salman, Deputy Minister of Interior Prince Ahmed, a former Deputy Minister of Defence Prince AbdulRahman, and Prince Turki, who seems to be agitating after his return to Saudi Arabia for a position.

The Faisals

Successors to King Saud, the immediate successor to Ibn Saud, the current long serving Foreign Minister, Saud is the leading Faisal member. Other prominent Faisals include Prince Khalid who has the centrally important role as Governor of Mecca, and Prince Turki who was the intelligence chief from 1977-2001. Turki was subsequently Ambassador to America and the UK, but subsequently disappeared from view for some time, though he retains a latent importance.

The Abdullah faction

The current King, Abdallah, has, so to speak, his own faction. He forged his place as head of the well regarded Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) from 1962-2010 as key to balancing to the ordinary Saudi Arabian Land Forces under Sudairi control. His problem stems from the fact that he has no full brothers in key positions, so his power has been invested in his sons.

Miteb was recently given charge of the SANG in a move which guarantees that he will be powerful for the foreseeable future, while Khalid is on the Allegiance Council, Mishal is the Governor or Najran province, and Abdulaziz as an adviser in the Royal court.

 

Runners and riders

Salman bin Abdulaziz (b.1936, Defence Minister)

Elevated to Defence Minister in November 2011 after being Governor of Riyadh. In his 9 months at the MOD he became highly respected for his work ethic and his desire to implement changes to the archaic practices and procedures. He is widely seen as likely to be elevated to Crown Prince.

Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (b.1945, Saudi Intelligence Chief)

A Minister with a key portfolio and an impressive track record in his post. Moving him would be a tricky matter and he does not have a good lineage, with his mother being non-Saudi. Unlikely to become Crown Prince. Could move to Defence, but will probably stay where he is.

Khalid Bin Sultan (b.1949, Assistant Defence Minister)

Performed poorly in battle in Yemen in 2009 and thus was not elevated to Minister of Defence when his father died. Given this public rebuke, he cannot become Crown Prince, but could conceivably finally become Minister of Defence if Salman becomes Crown Prince, though this is far from guaranteed.

Bandar Bin Sultan (b.1949, Former Ambassador to America)

Formerly a hugely important figure who has more recently been lost in the proverbial desert. Despite this and his non-traditional lineage on his mother’s side, he is a widely respected figure who could play some role.

Saud Bin Faisal (b.1941, Foreign Minister)

Widely respected but old and ill. There has been talk of him stepping down from the Foreign Ministry so taking on another role would seem to make no sense.

Prince Turki Bin Faisal (b.1945, Former intelligence head; UK & US Ambassador)

Still an influential and ethereal figure today. A chequered history, though, and a decidedly non-conservative streak suggest that he will not be promoted.

Mishaal Bin Abdulaziz (b.1926, Former Defence Minister, Governor of Mecca, Chair of Allegiance Council)

Far too old even in a Saudi context to be considered.

Sattam Bin Abdulaziz (b.1941, Governor of Riyadh)

Recently became Governor of Riyadh, a key position; it is distinctly possible that he would be elevated at some stage.

Ahmed Bin Abdulaziz (b.1941, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Deputy Governor of Mecca)

Largely overlooked thus far, Ahmed nevertheless has a strong reputation and could conceivably find himself with another job in the coming weeks.

…..

Mohammed Bin Nayef (b.1959, Assistant Minister of the Interior)

He has earned an excellent reputation in the MOI for improving its counter-terrorism and intelligence abilities though being a worldly, un-dogmatic, and diligent worker. Would have been a clear leader to be a future Crown Prince had his father lived to be King. Will still be among the key contenders; he is the son of a key Sudairi after all, though he is very young.

Khalid Bin Faisal (b.1940, Governor of Mecca)

The Governorship of Mecca carries with is significant responsibility and prestige. He has been in the post for five years now. He is one of the older candidates of those not a son of Ibn Saud, which in the Saudi context could be significant.

Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah (b.1963, Deputy Foreign Minister)

Formerly of the SANG where he spent over a decade, he has for almost a year been the Deputy Foreign Minister. He is also on the board of KAUST, hoped to be one of the key institutions of change in Saudi Arabia, and stands a good chance of being the next foreign Minister at least.

Abdulaziz bin Salman (b.1960, Minister of Oil)

His position as Minister of Oil guarantees him a prominent role in Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen how much Salman will seek to elevate him.

Miteb bin Abdullah (b.1953, Commander of SANG)

In control of arguably the most potent army in Saudi Arabia and carries significant sway. Certainly a potential for future Crown Prince, though it depends upon whether his father can make a deal to see this come to fruition after he passes, or whether he can arrange a ‘second Deputy Prime Minister’ spot as he did for Nayef in 2009, effectively lining him up to the throne.

Mishaal Bin Abdullah (Governor of Najran Province)

Najran Province borders Yemen and is thus of huge strategic importance to Saudi Arabia. This kind of ‘training’ can be played upon to secure his future elevation in position.

Mohammed bin Fahd (b.1951, Governor of the Eastern Province)

Like Mishaal, with ‘training’ in such a key areas as the Eastern Province, Mohammed is potentially ready for a higher role.