On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud died and his half-brother, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, in a smooth transition, became king. This was the sixth succession in Saudi Arabia since it formally became ‘Saudi’ Arabia in 1932 under King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (d.1953).
So far, each Saudi ruler has been a son of the state’s founder, Abdul-Aziz. The first three kings (Abdul-Aziz, Saud, and Faisal) were in their fifties on ascending to the throne, their next two successors (Khalid and Fahd) were in their sixties, Abdullah was in his 70s when he became regent and in his 80s when he finally became King. Salman was three weeks into his 79th year when he became King. This mode of succession begs the question of what will the Kingdom do now that it is rapidly running out of compos mentis sons of Abdul-Aziz. This succession event was more important, therefore, in terms of what it sets in motion regarding the transition to the new generation than for weighing up the similarities and differences of Kings Abdullah and Salman.
The Ministerial Merry-Go-Round
Less than two months after eight new ministers were appointed under Abdullah, on assuming power, Salman swiftly instigated a raft of decrees shuffling the Saudi chess board once more. But, rather than the relatively cosmetic changes of the ministerial reshuffle of 8 December 2014, Salman’s changes concerned more important ministries and personalities. Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, a former intelligence chief, close US-ally (sometimes referred to as ‘Bandar bin Bush’), recently in charge of the Syria file, and who retained a key position advising Abdullah and as the head of the national security council, was sacked. Indeed, the council itself was dissolved, as were a dozen other committees and quangos. The upshot of this is the significant centralisation of the work of these defunct institutions to two bodies: the Council for Economic Development Affairs (CEDA) and the Council for Political and Security Affairs (CPSA).
One of Salman’s sons from his second marriage, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS), has gained significantly in the reshuffle. Aged somewhere between 29 and 35, MbS heads the hugely powerful CEDA institution. Though his father the King has followed the tradition of being his own prime minister, in effect, the purview of this position means that MbS is ‘prime minister in training.’ Of equal significance was his promotion to become the world’s youngest minister of defence; quite a surprise given his lack of a military background. He remains the head of his father’s court and so replaced the arch insider and power broker Khalid al-Tuwaijri , who was the head of the Royal Court for Abdullah and who is, according to some reports, now under house arrest.
Only Mohammed bin Naif al-Saud (MbN) can claim to have benefitted as well from the reshuffle. The 55 year-old MbN, a son of a former long-term minister of the interior and Crown Prince, Naif bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, has long been regarded as one of the most capable and efficient Ministers and consequently seen as primus inter pares of the second generation Princes in the race for the top job. He was promoted and officially anointed by the Allegiance Council [a body formed in 2006 to ratify such matters] as second-in-line to the throne. Though competition remains, as the second-in-line and as the head of the powerful CPSA, he is well positioned. In between MbN and the top job is Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the 69 year-old promoted to Crown Prince by Salman. That his mother was a Yemeni slave girl was often assumed to put him out of the reckoning for the position of king, but he now finds himself a heartbeat from ultimate power.
Rooting around in the tactical weeds of the who, what, and why of the changes in Saudi Arabia’s elite politics is, while interesting, not necessarily that useful. Firstly, it is too early to draw any substantive conclusions as to the wider ramifications of the changes. Secondly, it is a debatable point as to whether it is more generally possible to accurately plot the trajectory of change in the Kingdom. So opaque is the politics that deveining a link between action and reaction, of not confusing causation with mere correlation, is tediously difficult.
An analyst wanting to paint a doom-laden picture could point to the replacement of the head of the infamous Saudi religious police who was, much to the anger of those within the organisation, (slowly) reforming the medieval intuition. Similarly, the Game of Thrones-style replacement of two of Abdullah’s sons from positions of influence could easily be spun into a narrative of archetypal Machiavellian cutting and thrusting political intrigue. The blowing of $32 billion on gifts and bonuses for Saudis – a sum, as Hubbard notes, larger than Africa’s largest annual budget in Nigeria – also does not inspire confidence as to wider issues of fiscal prudence.
Those in search of a more positive twist could point to the technocratic appointment of a trained lawyer as the head of the stock market regulator, the installation of a military-trained commoner as intelligence chief, or the appointment of the editor of the secular al-Arabiya news channel as information minister. Other examples of pragmatism reining over politics include the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, and, crucially, petroleum and mineral resources remaining in post.
The best an analyst can do is to humbly plot the potential contours of the implications of the changes starting with what seems to be certain.
The Known Knowns
Salman has been at the heart of Saudi decision making for much of the past half-century. Though Abdullah is believed to have had a significant impact on the direction of Saudi policies, there is no evidence that suggests that Salman was an especially reluctant follower. Abdullah, after all, made him his Crown Prince. Some kind of about-turn in the pace of glacially slow reform – with occasional faster spurts – instigated by Abdullah seems unlikely.
With a strong record within the Kingdom for probity and having dealt relatively effectively with a wave of bombings in the mid and late-2000s (including being nearly killed by the world’s first rectal-bomb), and an apparently strong relationship with America too, MbN remains the favourite to be the first leader of Saudi Arabia from the new generation.
But Salman’s changes have quite clearly catapulted his young son, MbS, into the wider reckoning. No one else has as influential a seat in both the economic and the security camps in Saudi Arabia, not to mention his role as gatekeeper to his father’s court.
While MbN seems to offer a tried and tested safe pair of hands, MbS does not. He has no pedigree of any import whatsoever to take to his new, centrally important roles in the Kingdom. Doubtless his father saw some signs within him that persuaded him to heroically over-promote this son over others, but these skills are yet to be seen on the wider stage.
The Known Unknowns
Given the near-vertical rise of MbS and the real power that he now wields but the profound lack of knowledge about his skills, this situation must be classified as concerning. Partly this is an issue of basic capability of the Saudi-educated young prince. But partly this is about the installation of an entirely untried and untested prince at the centre of Saudi politics for, potentially, a number of decades. Four deputy defence ministers have been sacked in the last 15 months alone, which some analysts suggest may be to do with MbS’s growing influence; a notion given more credence now that he has been appointed minister of defence. This could, of course, be a good thing: perhaps he demands a level of professionalism that they could not meet; equally, perhaps the opposite is the case.
Linked to this issue is the wider speculation surrounding the battle for prominence of the princes of the next generation. Given the historical importance of a military background or otherwise developing strong connections to some form of hard-power, there are three key princes: MbN the minister of the interior and head of the security-orientated committee, MbS as the minister of defence, and Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, who, though he has lost influence and backing of his brothers who were sacked from their governorship roles, retains a loyal, effective, fighting force (and his brothers could well return).
La Plus Ca Change?
Eschewing the fatalistic supposition that all of Saudi politics belongs to the realm of the unknown unknowns, it is tempting to conclude that the near-term successions are not looking too challenging. Muqrin is in line to take the throne and, though the strength of his mandate on becoming Crown Prince (i.e. the number of votes he received in the Allegiance Council) is not known, it may be assumed that he will succeed. But even if he does not, the only logical alternative in view at this juncture is MbN usurping him. Such an outcome, though not immediately likely, does not present too problematic a challenge.
Perhaps the only clear outcome from this past transition is that issues surrounding jumping down a generation have actually been complicated, potentially worryingly so, and not simplified. If MbN had been made second deputy crown prince amid a cabinet reshuffle, then the only reasonable conclusion would have been to see him as a clear favourite. But the rise of MbS in and of itself poses MbN a direct challenger with the portfolios to gather support and influence.
Image: King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, 9 December 2013. Photo courtesy of US Department of Defense.