Saudi Succession Update

Still no word from Riyadh on who will be the next Crown Prince. Sultan’s funeral has been set for Tuesday. I think we can expect a ruling from the Allegiance Council, the body that will ratify (or make) the selection of the successor by Wednesday at the latest, though my gut tells me they’ll have it done in time for the funeral on Tuesday. That allows the funeral to serve a double purpose–it can also be an occasion for the assembled Princes to show loyalty and to demonstrate that they won’t attempt to upset the applecart. This was the case, for instance, at the funeral of King Abdulaziz (ibn Saud), and I believe the same happened with King Faisal.

There has been, as is typical with Saudi royal matters, little information on what’s going on. The best current profile I’ve found is at Arabian Business, and it suggests that Nayef remains the most likely Crown Prince. Former U.S. ambassador Robert Jordan hinted that there may be changes in store at the Defense Ministry, for the appointment of Sultan’s son Khaled could change the balance of power within the royal family. It’s a bit of an odd argument, but rumors are really the best we have right now. I’d still keep an eye on Khaled’s younger brother Bandar.

The greatest fluidity may be in the selection of the second successor (i.e. Nayef’s replacement). Analysis points to Salman bin Abdulaziz, the current governor of Riyadh. He’s 76, which in the current scheme makes him a fresh-faced youngster, and it would be easier to choose him than to choose someone of the third generation of royals, because it would not violate the tradition of choosing from among the oldest men in the Al Saud. However, the continued use of the second generation could be a recipe for instability, as they are all quite advanced in age (the youngest two, Sattam and Muqrin, were born in 1943 and are thus nearing 70). A string of rapid successions would hinder individual Kings’ abilities to consolidate the position of their successors, increasing the risk of open indecision or even the use of force. A third generation prince like Bandar might be appropriate. Nayef will likely want to get something for his son Mohammad bin Nayef (who was infamously nearly killed by a terrorist who had hidden a bomb in his, ahem, body cavity). Appointing Mohammad bin Nayef as Deputy Prime Minister would likely be much more than the rest of the royals would tolerate (including Abdullah himself), so Nayef would be foolish to attempt it; if he wants to keep the path clear, he might instead try to keep the second successor position open and resolve the matter when he is on the throne.

An excellent, more detailed piece by Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute can be found here.

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