Saudi Arabia's Succession Labyrinth

14 MINS READJan 23, 2015 | 00:14 GMT
Saudi Interior Minister Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz

Editor's Note: In light of the death of Saudi King Abdullah, we are republishing this analysis from 2012 outlining the complexities of the Saudi royal family and the challenges faced by those succeeding to the throne. 

Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-aziz was admitted for medical tests in Cleveland March 10, 2012, amid rumors he had suffered a stroke. This development came a week after the kingdom’s official news agency, SPA, said the crown prince, who has long been the country’s interior minister, was seen off by a large royal entourage as he was leaving for a vacation to an undisclosed destination. The 80-year-old Prince Nayef became crown prince in October 2011 after the death of his elder brother, Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz. His health reportedly has deteriorated in recent years, along with that of his half-brother, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz.

Since 2005, when Abdullah ascended to the throne after the death of his predecessor, King Fahd, the Saudi kingdom has been engaged in a slow transition of power. Besides King Abdullah, there are some 18 surviving sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, King Abdul-aziz bin Abdel-Rehman al-Saud, of whom only three can be considered likely successors to the throne given their current positions and influence. This means the grandsons of the founder, a much larger group, will very soon dominate the hierarchy of the Saudi state. So long as power was in the hands of the second generation, succession was not such a difficult issue and was dealt with informally. However, due to the massive changes occurring both within Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East, this transition will come at a particularly difficult time for the next-generation leadership that, despite the formal processes for succession instituted by Abdullah, will likely be far less unified than the current one.

The Saudi royalty's health problems come at a time of great uncertainty for Riyadh. On the home front, the Saudis are trying to ensure that the regional Arab unrest does not spill into its borders. At the same time, they are trying to counter an increasingly aggressive Iran. That said, the al-Saud regime has proved to be remarkably resilient over the course of its history, remaining in power despite the forced abdication of the founder’s successor, King Saud, in 1964; the assassination of King Faisal in 1975; and the stroke-induced incapacitation of King Fahd for nearly a decade until his death in 2005, when King Abdullah took the throne.

The stability of the second generation’s leadership can be attributed, at least in part, to three key clans of the royal family acting as checks on one another. These include the Faisal clan, named for the successor to King Saud, who succeeded the founder, King Abdul-Aziz; the Abdullah faction, named for the current king; and the Sudairi clan, named for the founder’s eighth wife, Princess Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. While Byzantine in its complexity, this balance has prevented incessant power grabs by King Abdul-Aziz’s hundreds of descendants.

The clan of former King Faisal includes Prince Saud, the current foreign minister, and Faisal’s other two sons, Prince Khalid, governor of Mecca, and Prince Turki, who served as the kingdom’s intelligence chief from 1977 to 2001. The Faisal clan has somewhat weakened in recent years. Prince Turki, after briefly serving as ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006, currently holds no official position, though he remains influential. His older full brother, Prince Saud, who has been foreign minister since 1975, is 70 years old and ailing, and could step down soon.

Despite his influence over the years as head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) from 1962 to 2010, crown prince from 1982 to 2005, and de factor ruler since 1995, King Abdullah’s faction is numerically small; he has no full brothers who hold key posts, and thus his clan is made up of his sons. King Abdullah’s most prominent son, Mitab bin Abdullah, recently took over the SANG, and the king’s oldest son, Khalid bin Abdullah, is a member of the newly formed Allegiance Council, set up to govern the succession process. Mishal bin Abdullah assumed the post of governor of the southern province of Najran, while another son, Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah, has been an adviser in his father’s royal court since 1989.

The Sudairis have held a disproportionate amount of power, due in part to the fact that their leader, the late King Fahd, was the longest-reigning monarch of the kingdom, ruling from 1982 to 2005. The Sudairi faction includes many powerful princes, such as the clan’s one-time patriarch, former Crown Prince Sultan, who served as minister of defense and aviation and as inspector general; Interior Minister and Crown Prince Naif; Defense Minister Prince Salman; Deputy Minister of Interior Prince Ahmed, and the former vice minister of defense and aviation, Prince Abdul Rahman.

Even though the crown prince’s clan is bigger and more prominent than the king’s, the two clans remain the principal stakeholders in the Saudi ruling family because they control the two parallel military forces of the kingdom. This has been the case since the early 1960s when then-Crown Prince Faisal — as part of his efforts to take power from his half brother, King Saud — appointed Crown Prince Sultan as minister of defense and aviation and King Abdullah as head of the SANG. The two men controlled the two separate forces for many decades.

King Abdullah’s move to appoint his son, Mitab, to head the SANG shows that control over the force will remain with his clan. The situation with the defense ministry is somewhat different. Sultan’s son Khalid, the assistant defense minister, did not take over the regular armed forces after his father’s death despite his background as an army general. The king, opposed to the move, instead appointed Sultan’s full brother Salman, who had been governor of Riyadh until then. In a sense, the position remains within the clan.

Further complicating the situation is that, thus far, clans have been composed of the various sons of the founder from different mothers. Now, many of these second-generation princes have multiple wives, who have produced many sons all seeking their share of power, adding to the factionalism.

Setting Up a Succession Plan

Sensing that the power-sharing method within the family had become untenable due to the sheer number of descendants seeking power and influence within the regime, King Abdullah in 2007 moved to enact the Allegiance Institution Law, which created a leadership council and a formal mechanism to guide future transitions of power.

This new, 35-member body, called the Allegiance Council, is made up of the 15 surviving sons of the founder and 19 of his grandsons — a disparity that will grow as the sons begin to die. Its purpose is to choose the new king and crown prince when they die or are permanently incapacitated, but the new institution remains an untested body. Perhaps most problematic, the processes the council is set to govern are being implemented at a time when the second generation is on its way out. Had this formal process of succession been initiated earlier, it would have been institutionalized during the era of the sons of the founder. They were far fewer in number and worked directly with their father to build the kingdom, giving them a stronger claim to authority than anyone in the subsequent generation. An earlier start would have allowed the second generation to deal with the many problems that inevitably crop up with any new system.

The composition of the Allegiance Council is such that it gives representation to all the sons of the founder. This is done through either their direct membership on the council or via the grandsons whose fathers are deceased, incapacitated, or otherwise unwilling to assume the throne. The reigning king and his crown prince are not members but each has a son on the council. The council is chaired by the eldest son of the founder, with his second-oldest brother as his deputy. Should there be no one left from the second generation, the leadership of the council falls to the eldest grandson. Any time there is a vacancy, the king is responsible for appointing a replacement, though it is not known if King Abdullah has filled the vacancy created by the death of Prince Fawaz bin Abdul-Aziz, who died in July 2008, some six months after the establishment of the council.

When King Abdullah dies, the council will pledge allegiance to the crown prince, currently Prince Nayef, though given his declining health it is questionable whether he will outlive the king. But the issue of the next crown prince is mired in a potential contradiction. According to the new law, after consultation with the Allegiance Council, the king can submit up to three candidates to the council for approval. The council can reject all of them and name a fourth candidate. But if the king rejects the council’s nominee then the council will vote between its own candidate and the one preferred by the king, and the candidate who gets the most votes becomes the crown prince. There is also the option that the king may ask the council to nominate a candidate. In any case, a new crown prince must be appointed within a month of the new king’s accession.

This new procedure, however, conflicts with the established practice in which the second deputy prime minister takes over as crown prince, a policy that has been followed since King Faisal appointed Fahd to the post. In fact, the current king, after not naming a second deputy prime minister (essentially a crown prince-in-waiting) for four years, appointed Interior Minister Prince Naif to the post in March 2009. But since Naif became crown prince (and thus deputy prime minister), the post of second deputy prime minister remains vacant. Salman, next in the line of succession, should have been given this post, but this has not yet happened. Regardless, however, the post of second deputy prime minister after the establishment of the Allegiance Council raises the question of whether established tradition will be replaced by the new formal procedure.

The law also addresses the potential scenario in which both the king and crown prince fall ill such that they cannot fulfill their duties, which could transpire in the current situation given the health issues of both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif. In such a situation, the Allegiance Council would set up a five-member Transitory Ruling Council that would take over the affairs of the state until at least one of the leaders regained his health. If, however, it is determined by a special medical board that both leaders are permanently incapacitated, the Allegiance Council must appoint a new king within seven days.

In the event that both the king and crown prince die simultaneously, the Allegiance Council would appoint a new king. The Transitory Ruling Council would govern until the new king was appointed. While it has been made clear that the Transitory Ruling Council will not be allowed to amend a number of state laws, its precise powers and composition have not been defined.

What Lies Ahead

The kingdom has little precedent in terms of constitutionalism. It was only in 1992 that the first constitution was developed, and even then the country has been largely governed via consensus obtained through informal means involving tribal and familial ties. Therefore, when this new formal mechanism for succession is put into practice, the House of Saud is bound to run into problems not only in implementation, but also competing interpretations.

To make matters worse, the Saudis are in the midst of this succession dilemma — and will be for many years to come given the advanced ages of many senior princes — at a time of massive change within the kingdom and a shifting regional landscape.

Saudi Arabia is perhaps at the most important historical impasse since the founding of its first incarnation in 1744. A number of internal and external events are occurring simultaneously and subjecting the Saudi state to extreme strain. On the external front there are a number of challenges, the most significant of which is the regional rise of Iran, catalyzed by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The Saudis also do not wish to see a U.S.-Iranian conflict in the Persian Gulf, which would have destabilizing effects on the kingdom. While Riyadh was struggling with the challenge from Iran, the Arab unrest erupted in early 2011, which has created two major hot spots on the eastern and southern borders of the kingdom.

On the southern flank, Yemen was grappling with three different insurrections challenging the regime of aging Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh even before the Arab unrest. A year later, Yemen is now in a post-Saleh period with a new president and various others jockeying for power. The Saudis are concerned about the Yemeni state and whether it will be able to hold together given that various forces are pulling Sanaa in different directions and jihadists are taking over significant swaths of territory.

On Saudi Arabia's east coast, Bahrain's Shia majority rose up against the minority Sunni monarchy. Bahrain is a bridge away from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which houses the largest concentration of Shia and represents a huge potential for Iran to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. This is why we saw Riyadh team up with its Gulf Cooperation Council allies to engage in its first-ever foreign military deployment to assist Manama’s security forces. Through this action, Saudi Arabia was able to contain the agitation, at least for the time being.

The empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — and like-minded Islamist forces elsewhere in North Africa poses another major challenge for the Saudis. The meltdown of decades-old autocratic regimes together with the electoral successes of Islamists has implications for the stability of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic monarchical model of governance. Concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood being a beneficiary of the uprising in Syria has the Saudi kingdom proceeding cautiously in supporting the rebels there, even though the ouster of the Syrian regime represents the single best option to weaken the threat from Iran.

Furthermore, the Syrian unrest has implications for Lebanon, Jordan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — all key areas of interest for the Saudis on their northern flank.

Turkey’s bid for leadership in the Middle East is a new variable the kingdom has not had to deal with since the close of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire. In the near term, the Saudis take comfort in the idea that Turkey can serve as a counter to Iran, but the long-term challenge posed by Turkey’s rise is a worrying development, especially since the Saudi leaders’ predecessors lost control of the Arabian Peninsula twice to the Ottomans — once in 1818 and then again in 1891.

Even in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Saudis are caught between two unappealing options: side with the Taliban, as they did during the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, and risk empowering al Qaeda-led jihadists, or oppose the Taliban and thus help Iran expand its influence in the area.

While the Saudis have time to deal with a number of these external challenges, they do not enjoy that same luxury in their domestic affairs. The Saudis have been largely successful in containing the threat from al Qaeda, but they have had to engage in radical reforms, spearheaded by King Abdullah, in order to do so. These include scaling back the powers of the religious establishment, expanding the public space for women, changing the educational sector and undertaking other social reforms.

These moves have led to a growing moderate-conservative divide at both the level of state and society and have galvanized those calling for further socio-political reforms as well as the significant Shia minority that seeks to exploit the opening provided by the reform process. These domestic issues have been magnified exponentially given the Arab unrest. In addition to the growing Shia protests in parts of the Eastern Province, there are reports of student unrest in the southwestern province of Asir.

There are also early signs of mainstream Saudis trying to mobilize in other parts of the kingdom — at least over the Internet. It is difficult for the Saudi authorities to prevent a large university-educated youth population — a large segment of which is unemployed — from being affected by the new protest norm in the region.

Complicating this situation are fears of the religious establishment that the new regional climate is weakening its influence, especially if the government moves to engage in additional reforms. While thus far the Saudis have been able to control prominent Muslim scholars, known as the ulema class, especially with the limits on who can issue fatwas, the potential for backlash from the ulema remains. At the very least, the ulema will support more conservative factions in any power struggle.

All of these issues further complicate the Saudis’ venture into uncharted territory insofar as leadership changes are concerned. There are several princes who have already distinguished themselves as likely key players in a future Saudi regime. These include intelligence chief Prince Muqrin, the youngest living son of the founder and a member of the Allegiance Council; Prince Khalid bin Faisal, the governor of Mecca province; Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, the new commander of SANG; and Assistant Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif, the kingdom’s counterterrorism chief and head of the de-radicalization program designed to reintegrate repentant jihadists.

Stratfor is thus watching this issue very closely for any movement on the part of the untested Allegiance Council, which is expected to choose a crown prince and king as per the new succession law in the event of the death of the incumbents. Salman could take over as Crown Prince, but he is seen as the last of the major princes, which means it will be important to see who among the grandsons of the founder of the modern kingdom will emerge as key stakeholders in the Saudi system. But in the end, the real issue is whether the historically resilient Saudi monarchy will be able to continue to demonstrate resilience moving forward.

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