Saudi Arabia: Succession and Stability

Published on January 23, 2015

The first thing that has to be said on the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is how quickly the succession of the Saudi throne has been to his half-brother, Crown Prince and Defense Minister Salman bin Abdul Aziz, and what it says about the stability in the Saudi succession and in its near term oil policies.

*** Crucially, the first royal decrees by the new King were to quickly name Deputy Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz as his Crown Prince. Perhaps even more importantly, Salman has also named Interior Minister Mohammed bin Naif to succeed Muqrin as the Deputy Crown Prince. The latter move marks the long awaited and difficult generational hand-off in the Al Saud succession to a grandson of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia, and will go a long way to ensuring a stability in the Saudi succession over the medium term. ***

*** The same continuity will be evident in current oil output being maintained to defend long term market share without broader agreements between OPEC and non-OPEC producers. Riyadh will likewise continue pressing to oust Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria and to crush the ISIS threat, while despite recent strains, Riyadh will seek to maintain in its close strategic alliance with the US. There may be some regional efforts or domestic terror attacks to test the “new” Saudi leadership’s resolve, but the Saudi internal security is extensive, and the Kingdom’s vast oil infrastructure is extremely well protected. ***

*** We will be paying particular attention on who among the world’s political leaders make the journey to Riyadh to pay condolences and to meet with the new King, in particular, whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets King Salman, and if he does, whether it offers the opportunity for a rapprochement of some kind between the two regional rivals. That could do far more than anything the US can do to ease their proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as potentially change the direction in oil prices. ***

On the other hand, it may prove to be too awkward for President Barack Obama to go to Riyadh at the same time House speaker John Boehner is snubbing the President by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu to Capitol Hill — which is ironic considering how closely the Saudis and Israelis are working these days on regional threats, however discreetly maintained — so repairing the diplomatic strains between the US and the Kingdom will probably fall to Vice President Joe Biden.

A Smooth Succession

The Allegiance Council, a forum of some 35 Al Saud senior princes created in 2006 by King Abdullah to help smooth succession, is expected to convene in the next few days and presumably to confirm King Salman’s appointments of Crown Prince Muqrin and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed.

There has been persistent speculation that Prince Muqrin lacks the broader Royal Family support to remain in the line of succession or that Salman, on becoming King, may want to name his own Crown Prince. Crown Prince Muqrin had previously served in various government positions, as Governor of the important Mecca province and as the head of the General Intelligence Directorate, and before then, serving as a fighter pilot in the Saudi Air Force after training at the British Royal military academy at Sandhurst. But he has no full brothers who would be the natural base of support, and with a Yemeni mother, was thought to lack the royal lineage to be King.

But Muqrin has long been close to King Abdullah, who also had no full brothers, and in 2013, King Abdullah first elevated Muqrin to Deputy Prime Minister and then in March 2014, on the eve of President Obama’s only visit to Riyadh, appointed Muqrin to the newly created position of Deputy Crown Prince in the same “unchangeable” royal decree confirming Prince Salman as Crown Prince.

That Salman moved so quickly to confirm the succession — and to appoint his own son Prince Mohammed bin Salman as defense minister — is remarkable and testifies to how thoroughly the steps had been worked out well in advance by King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman, who became quite close over the years after having shared relatively progressive views – by Saudi standards — that also tended to align the interests of their sons.

Crown Prince Salman served as the powerful Governor of the Riyadh province for just over 40 years, and came to be something of the arbitrator of Royal Family disputes and to keeping the peace with the Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious establishment. He also enjoys Abdullah’s reputation for a relative lack of corruption, and both have done much to restore the Al Saud legitimacy after the years under King Fahd, who had a fondness for a more Western lifestyle in his youth.

The rapid announcement of the succession also testifies to what is apparently a consensus of support among the other senior Princes, including the powerful sons of former Crown Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, the long serving Minister of Interior whose son Mohammed is now third in line to the throne. All three of those clans have consolidated considerable power in recent years under King Abdullah.

Abdullah’s eldest son, Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, was elevated in 2009 to a Cabinet level position as Commander of the National Guard, which is probably a mainstay of his power base within the Family. Abdullah’s other sons were all put into senior positions of power, Mishal as Governor of Mecca in 2009, Faisal, who is now serving as a deputy foreign minister, and Prince Turki, who was made Governor of the Riyadh province last year.

Among Crown Prince Salman’s sons, Abdul Aziz is a deputy oil minister, Faisal is Governor of Medina, Khaled went up on one of the American space shuttles and was among the first fighter pilots flying the missions against ISIS, and Mohammed was appointed earlier today as King Salman’s successor as defense minister, since as King, Salman can no longer hold a cabinet portfolio.

Among the al-Naif sons, not only is Prince Mohammed the interior minister and now the “third man” in the line of succession, his brother Saud is Governor of the important eastern Province, home of both the Saudi oil fields and the minority Shia population, and Saud is the Saudi ambassador to Spain.

All three of these family clans are also said to be closely aligned with the three sons of the late King Faisal; Prince Saud the long serving but ailing Foreign Minister, Prince Khaled, a former Governor of the Asir Province and Medina who now owns a major media conglomerate, and Prince Turki, the former head of intelligence and a former ambassador to the UK and to the US.

To some extent, the losers in the power shuffle would appear to be the sons of the late King Fahd and the late Crown Prince Sultan. Among them, Prince Mohammed bin Fahd was removed as a long serving governor of the politically sensitive Eastern Province, home of both the oil fields and the minority Shia population. He was replaced several years ago by Prince Saud bin Naif, the brother to the newly appointed Deputy Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif.

Likewise, Prince Khaled bin Sultan was replaced as deputy minister of defense in 2013 after allegedly bungling a border skirmish with the Houthi Shia tribal fighters in north Yemen in 2009. Only the somewhat mercurial Prince Bander bin Sultan among the elder sons of Fahd and Sultan remains in the inner circles of power, still serving as head of the recently created National Security Council.

Oil and Regional Policies

If there is anything more prized or more valued by the Saudi Royal Family — other than maintaining their grip on power and wealth of course – it is a stability at home while elevating Saudi living standards and continuity in their oil, regional policies and foreign relations.

There have been obvious strains in the recent relations with the United States ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq by President Bush and more recently by the shifts in US policy towards Egypt at the height of the Arab Spring, the debacle over Syria and backing down from the so-called redline vow of retaliation if President Bashar used chemical weapons, and the sudden behind-the-back of allies including both Saudi Arabia and Israel overture to Tehran to loosen some of the crippling Western sanctions against Iran to renew negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

The strategic alliance between the two countries, however, is deeply entrenched, dating back to when President Franklin Roosevelt stopped over on from the Yalta conference in 1944 to meet with King Abdul Aziz on board the USS Quincy anchored near the Suez Canal. A distrust of President Obama notwithstanding, for instance, the intelligence cooperation between Washington and Riyadh to counter the Salafist terrorism of al Qaeda and ISIS is still extensive.

Likewise, however much has been made in the media over a Saudi intention to drive out the competition from the US shale oil producers, the current Saudi oil policy stance has more to do with a fundamental desire to defend long term market share and their position as the low cost oil producer. To some extent it may also reflect a strategic push to move the well managed Saudi Aramco’s reach further downstream into a fully-fledged “seven sisters” global oil company. The plunge in oil prices that has been so largely orchestrated by the Saudi stance, it has to be said, is also proving to be a massive boon to global demand and growth, however much the energy sector struggles to adjust.

We are closely watching for adjustments in Saudi foreign policy, specifically new developments in the intense rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance. There is a huge religious split between Shia and Sunni at its heart, and there are powerful vested interests in both countries among entrenched religious establishments driving the current proxy wars between the two powers across the region.

Bashar al Assad, for instance, is only in power by virtue of his near unlimited support from Iran, and by extension, Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The same can be said for the Shia militias in Iraq who are the main military counter force to the ISIS fighters ruling over the Sunni heartlands of western Iraq, or the support for the Houthi Shia rebels in Yemen.

We have seen no firm evidence of a rapprochement between the two capitals, though there have been rumors of some members of the Saudi Royal Family making the case for a new stance towards Tehran, much in the way of a “Nixon going to China.” The odds do seem low for such a move, but it is worth keeping an eye for, as if it should come about even in an initial phase, it would transform the political landscape of the Middle East, not to mention almost certainly putting a much firmer floor under oil prices and perhaps even a substantial upward nudge.

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