Challenges for the Saudi Royal Family: Succession

8 MINS READSep 10, 2012 | 11:05 GMT
King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia speaks to US President Franklin D Roosevelt.
(Photo by National Archives/Interim Archives/Getty Images)
Aboard the USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia (1875 - 1953) (center) speaks to American Marine Corps translator Colonel William A Eddy (1896 - 1962) (kneeling left) as US President Franklin D Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) listens, Egypt, February 14, 1945.

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on the future challenges to the Saudi royal family's rule.

The key pillars upon which the House of Saud rests — its unity and leadership, its relationship with the religious establishment and the legitimacy derived from that, and its reliance on energy revenues — will all be called into question in the coming decades. The first real test of the Saudi transition is fast approaching. The deaths of two crown princes in the past eight months highlight the fact that the pool of second-generation princes, who have ruled the country for much of its 80-year history, is dwindling. As third-generation princes step into leadership roles over the next several decades, family unity — a pillar of the family's rule that has allowed it to weather a variety of crises and challenges — will be uncertain. Moreover, the third generation of princes' ability to balance religious and tribal structures while deftly handling foreign policy will be put to the test.

History of Succession

The throne of the king of Saudi Arabia has changed hands five times in the modern kingdom's history. Each power transfer was accompanied by its share of internal tension as the royal family members competed for power. Such tension was particularly rife during the first two successions, in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the princes ultimately set aside personal agendas to ensure the stability and durability of the kingdom. 

Standards for succession were informally established when King Abdulaziz's eldest son, Prince Saud, succeeded the founder. However, in 1964 the former king's second son, Faisal, took power after forcing King Saud to abdicate his throne. It was then established that the king must not only be a senior member of the family, but he must also be viewed as having national leadership credentials. These informal qualifications were reinforced when Prince Khaled became king in 1975 — his two older brothers lacked senior national leadership experience. 

Saudi Kings and Key Princes

Saudi Kings and Family graphic

In addition to these conditions, balancing the power of the various family branches of King Abdulaziz's progeny became increasingly important. The main power blocs include the family of the late King Faisal, a steadily weakening faction; the seven sons of King Abdulaziz's favorite wife, Hassa al Sudairi, known as the "Sudairi seven"; and King Abdullah's descendants. During each succession period it has been made clear that real efforts are in place to limit the various power factions.

King Faisal then imposed a separate informal policy for establishing a ruler in Saudi Arabia. Faisal appointed not only a crown prince but also a second deputy prime minister, who is essentially third in line for the throne. This process has been adopted by all of the subsequent kings, although it took the current king, Abdullah, four years to appoint the second deputy prime minister, Naif (a Sudairi), who since became crown prince and then died June 16. Since Naif's death, the position of second deputy prime minister has remained vacant, raising the question of whether more formal mechanisms of succession might replace the tradition. 

Formal laws of succession have been put in place. In 1992, King Fahd introduced the Basic Law of Government, which, among other things, legalized the passing of the title of king to the third-generation. King Abdullah gave further impetus to the system begun in 1992. In 2006, Abdullah formed the Allegiance Council, composed of representatives from the families of each of King Abdulaziz's sons. In 2007, he issued a new succession law to guide future transitions of power. However, this new council remains largely untested in determining the question of succession, and many questions remain as to how the council will logistically function.

The Next Generation of Princes 

Challenges Facing the Saudi Royal Family

Saudi Arabia Baseline Map

Despite the procedures set in place to regulate who will assume power in the future, there will come a time, perhaps in 10-20 years, when the role of king will be assigned for the first time to one of the grandsons of King Abdulaziz. This shift will raise a number of concerns. First, while many of the elder third-generation princes hold prominent roles, only a select few have been tested in foreign policy and national governance. Second, it cannot be known whether the younger, less experienced grandsons will place the stability and unity of the kingdom above their own interests. This will be revealed only once the third-generation princes begin to compete for the top two power positions. 

Finally, it is important to remember that a greater number of second-generation princes were uneducated compared to the third generation. Some members of the second generation were content to settle for financial benefits from the government rather than take on public office. Considering the higher education levels attained by the third-generation princes, there will likely be more grandsons battling for government positions — a condition that will exacerbate factionalism and lead to fierce competition. 
While no third-generation prince has risen to the post of king or crown prince, some of King Abdulaziz's grandsons are well known internationally and hold government positions of substantial importance. Prince Mutaib, son of King Abdullah, is one of the most prominent grandsons. Since 2010, Mutaib has held the position of commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard – a critical position that his father once held for roughly 50 years. This appointment indicated King Abdullah's trust in Mutaib and solidified the beginning of his grooming as a major player.
Additionally, only the governorship of Riyadh is held by a second-generation prince; the other 12 provinces are headed by third-generation princes. The governor of Mecca, Khalid bin Faisal, was the head of Asir province for roughly 30 years; he has a strong reputation and a military background. Saud bin Faisal, though his health is declining rapidly, is the longest-serving foreign minister, a post he has held since 1975. The list of prominent grandsons continues with Khalid bin Sultan, Bandar bin Sultan, Muhammad bin Nayef, Abdulaziz bin Salman — all of the Sudairi faction — and Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, of the King Abdullah faction. All of them continue to develop distinguished government careers. Because many of the third-generation princes hold senior government posts, the question of experience is not as pressing, in the context of a succession, as is the potential for the development of more factions within the ruling family and the question of individual members' loyalty and willingness to set aside personal ambitions for the sake of the kingdom.

Considering the higher education levels attained by the third-generation princes, there will likely be more grandsons battling for government positions — a condition that will exacerbate factionalism and lead to fierce competition. 

However, given the longevity of Saudi royalty and the remaining prominent second-generation princes, the transition of leadership to the third-generation princes will not take place for another decade at least. Abdullah is ailing and is nearly 90 years old. Upon his death, he is slated to be replaced by Crown Prince Salman of the Sudairi faction. Salman is roughly 10 years younger than King Abdullah. Depending on his health and the amount of time he rules, a likely candidate to be brought in as the new crown prince is Prince Sattam, who does not belong to a faction. Sattam, a son of the founder, is in his early 70s and is the governor of Riyadh, the kingdom's most important province.
Two other future crown prince candidates are Prince Muqrin and Prince Ahmad. Muqrin is the third-youngest son of King Abdulaziz, does not belong to a faction and served as head of the General Intelligence Directorate for seven years until he was released and appointed as a special envoy and adviser to King Abdullah in July. Prince Ahmad is a Sudairi and served as vice minister of interior for roughly 40 years. He was appointed interior minister in June. Despite Ahmad's strong government background, he is less likely to become crown prince under Salman (a Sudairi) because another Sudairi brother would not likely be chosen as the prince-in-waiting — in order to avoid a power monopoly. The royal family is known to be careful to avoid having two brothers from the same faction ruling as king and crown prince.
With the Faisal power block on a decline, the second-generation Sudairi clan beginning to age out, and the third-generation Sudairis gaining importance, it will be important to watch for which third-generation brothers band together to assert themselves and challenge the Sudairi third generation. Several sons of King Abdullah have seen their government roles become even more pronounced in the last few years; theirs will likely be one faction that serves as a counter-weight to the Sudairis. 
Because Saudi Arabia's second-generation princes will likely hold power for another decade or two, the third-generation princes will have even more time to cultivate their roles, experience and leadership qualities in order to prepare themselves for the eventual power transition. During that time, the Allegiance Council will likely have the opportunity help choose the future king and crown prince — which will help ensure a smoother transition when the third-generation princes take power. At the same time, the grandsons of King Abdulaziz will benefit from a 10- to 15-year buffer to learn from second-generation princes regarding the norms and expectations for members of the royal family, the hope being that they, too, will ultimately place the stability of the kingdom before personal aspirations. However, the period before the transition will also allow time and space for more factions to develop as the third generation strives to gain relevance and keep the power of the Sudairi grandsons in check. The formation of these factions could lead to fierce and potentially destabilizing infighting.

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