Spotlight West Asia

New Leadership Lineup in Saudi Arabia: Reading the Tea Leaves

02 Feb, 2015    ·   4827

Amb Ranjit Gupta presents his analysis of the Saudi monarchy in the aftermath of King Abdullah’s death

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow

In Saudi Arabia, the incumbent King has the absolute right to designate a successor who is titled as the Crown Prince. However, with an eye to ensure acceptable successions in the future given the intense factional rivalries within the royal family and the advancing age of potential monarchs, King Abdullah established the Allegiance Council in 2006 to decide upon succession matters. Also, in March 2014, King Abdullah, controversially, created a new designation - Deputy Crown Prince - and appointed his half-brother Prince Moqren, thus placing him second in the line of succession. The appointment decree was strangely worded, stating that the appointment had been made in consultation with the Crown Prince, had been approved by the Allegiance Council, and could not be changed by anybody in the future. Disgruntled members of the royal family tweeted objections and it became publicly known that unprecedentedly a quarter of the Allegiance Council did not agree. The reality is that the Allegiance Council has functioned as a rubber stamp. The fact is that in the normal course it would have been highly unlikely that Moqren, the son of a Yemeni slave woman, who never had a front rank job, would be in the line of succession, particularly as there remained an elder brother, the youngest of the powerful ‘Sudairi Seven’, Prince Ahmed. It was clear that Moqren’s appointment was designed to ensure that Abdullah’s sons would have a prominent governmental future. 

King Salman, already 79 and in poor health, is the last of the prominent sons of the founder King, and the time is inevitably coming for the crown and other important portfolios to pass on to the next generation. For years there has been speculation of when that might happen and who would be the chosen one. 

All this was settled within a few hours of Salman’s ascending the throne and even before King Abdullah was buried. The single most important decision announced by King Salman was the appointment of the incumbent Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to be concurrently the new Deputy Crown Prince, unequivocally making the latter the first amongst the next generation to be in line to take the crown. He is 55 years old. The other particularly significant appointment was that of his son, Mohammed bin Salman, only 34 years old, as the new Defence Minister and also the Head of the Royal Court, a singularly important post. He will also be a member of the newly created high-powered Council of Political and Security Affairs (chaired by the new Deputy Crown Prince and Interior Minister) and head the newly created high-powered Council of Economic and Development Affairs. To assign two particularly powerful portfolios and give membership of the government’s newly created policy and implementation hubs to an untried and untested rather young individual is absolutely unprecedented. He has been clearly placed in the line to become King one day. 

The many changes also affect two of the late King Abdullah’s sons who have been removed from significant jobs by making Faisal bin Bandar Governor of Riyadh instead of Turki bin Abdullah and reinstating Khaled al-Faisal as Mecca Governor less than two years after he was replaced by Mishaal bin Abdullah.

All these appointments cumulatively herald the return of the Sudairies to overriding power after the 20 year Abdullah hiatus - 10 years as virtual regent and King for another decade. The former King’s son, Prince Meteb, remains the head of the National Guard - it would have been hazardous to remove him since the National Guard has been commanded by Abdullah since 1962 and more recently by Prince Miteb, is numerically larger than the army, as strong as the army, and fiercely loyal to the Abdullah clan.

Prince Moqren was confirmed as Crown Prince but remains the fly in the ointment. This was probably done not to rock the boat immediately on taking over. In the past once designated as the Crown Prince he has invariably become the King unless he predeceased the incumbent King like Crown Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Nayef successively. However, Moqren has no supporting constituency in the country either in the royal family or in the governmental establishment or amongst clerics or the people, and it should not be too difficult to remove him if only the ailing King Salman has enough time left to consolidate his hold on power and earn sufficient popularity with the people. In the meantime he is unlikely to be given any significant role in the new and evolving set-up.

Moqren has lost his most powerful supporter Khalid Al-Tuwaijri, the erstwhile head of the Royal Court. Despised and deeply resented by the vast majority of the royal princes, his removal was the first and entirely predictable decision taken by the new monarch upon accession to the throne.

Significantly the Oil Minister Naimi has been retained, clearly indicating that Saudi Arabia will continue its policy of retaining market share even at the risk of keeping oil prices low. Despite resultant budgetary constraints this year, the new King has showered large monetary hand-outs to a vast number of people and entities totalling several dozens of billions of dollars to garner popularity. He is the first Saudi King to use social media  and has racked up more than 450,000 new followers on the microblogging site Twitter (@KingSalman), bringing the total to over 1.75 million. King Salman has certainly got off to a very deeply personally satisfying beginning.