Just when it seemed that the aging rulers of Saudi Arabia were finally preparing to transfer power to the next generation of princes, King Abdullah has postponed the inevitable yet again by appointing his half -brother Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz to the key position of second deputy prime minister.
Saudi law prescribes that the king must be a son or direct male descendant of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdul Aziz al-Saud. All kings since Abdul Aziz’s death in 1953 have been sons — of which he had dozens, by many women. As those sons have aged and died, analysts of Saudi affairs have scrutinized the family’s affairs like Kremlinologists watching parades in Moscow during the Cold War, searching for clues about when the few remaining sons would finally deliver the throne to the “grandsons’ generation” — a generation that is itself already passing middle age.
In strategic and economic terms, it probably makes little difference to the rest of the world who becomes king of Saudi Arabia because longstanding policies are unlikely to change. So far as is known outside the al-Saud family, no potential king is likely to abandon Saudi Arabia’s security partnership with the United States, its antipathy to Iran, or its commitment to stability in the oil market.
Domestically, however, the succession process could be crucial to the stability and social development of the kingdom. For all its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia in the next twenty years will confront its rulers with immense economic and social challenges that will require skill, imagination, charisma, and probably luck to overcome. Shortages of water, energy, housing, and jobs for armies of young people, combined with multiplying demands for the empowerment of women, popular resentment of corruption and incompetence in government, the explosion of social media, and the dogged resistance of the religious establishment to any kind of social or political restructuring, will give any leader more than one man can handle.
Even supporters of the monarchical system have argued that future kings should not also be prime minister – that is a management job requiring technocratic skill, not a quality for which the al-Saud are renowned.
Few if any outsiders know what is being planned within the closed circle of the al-Saud family, but in the past year and a half the deaths of two crown princes, Sultan and Nayef, have intensified speculation about the succession. The current crown prince, Salman — a full brother of the two who died a half-brother of the king — is widely reported to be in failing health.
Some analysts have speculated that half a dozen senior grandsons who hold influential positions in the government could compete with each other to be first on the throne, perhaps igniting a power struggle that would undermine the regime. King Abdullah seemed to have taken that possibility off the table in July when he appointed Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a son of the crown prince who died, to be minister of interior. That made Muhammad the most powerful person in Saudi Arabia other than the king himself, because the Interior ministry controls all domestic police and security forces other than the National Guard. It also appeared to make him a leading contender to join the line of succession, perhaps as second deputy prime minister, a position once held by his late father. Now Abdullah has shuffled the deck once again with the appointment of Muqrin.
Prince Muqrin is the youngest surviving son of Abdul Aziz. He was an air force officer in his youth, trained in Britain and later in the United States, according to his official biography. In 1980 he was appointed governor of Hail province, an agricultural region in the north, a position he held for twenty years. He then became governor of Medina province—a sure sign that he is at least acceptable to the religious leadership, because Medina is the holy city in which the Prophet Muhammad found refuge after being driven out of Mecca by his pagan rivals. If he held strong views on international or economic affairs while in those positions or during his five years as director of intelligence, they were not much in evidence to outsiders.
Some analysts believe that as intelligence director he was responsible for implementing King Abdullah’s policy of bringing down the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and was fired when he failed to engineer that outcome.
While his appointment as second deputy makes him a strong contender for the throne, his elevation to the kingship is not inevitable. King Abdullah promulgated a succession law under which he is the last king with the absolute right to choose his own successor. All kings after him, beginning with Salman if he outlives Abdullah, will be required to nominate successors for consideration by a group of 35 senior princes known as the Allegiance Council. The council can accept one of the nominees or reject them all and select its own candidate. Because Abdullah has survived his crown princes, the Allegiance process has never been tested.
Thomas W. Lippman is the author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally.