Saudi Succession Shuffle
A not unexpected event has just been announced: 31-year old Prince Muhammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Sa’ud has been elevated from Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia by his father, 81-year old King Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Abdul-Rahman al-Sa’ud, to replace his 57-year old cousin, Prince Muhammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Sa’ud. The former Crown Prince is Minister of the Interior, a position he inherited from his father, the late Prince Nayef, who was Crown Prince prior to current King Salman, but died before the most recent king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bin Abdul-Rahman al-Sa’ud died at age 90 in 2015, so Salman got to be king and now has moved his younger son up ahead of his somewhat older nephew. Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) is also Defense Minister, the position his father had taken in 2011 on the death of Prince Sultan, who was then also Crown Prince, with Salman prior to that serving as Governor of Riyadh province for 40 years. MbS has by all accounts been running things in Saudi Arabia recently, being behind the aggressive war in Yemen that has gone badly and also probably the main orchestrator of both Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the move to diplomatically and economically isolate Qatar. Juan Cole describes MbS as being “sloppy” and “unwise,” but he may be in position now to rule Saudi Arabia for a long time to come if this appointment is not reversed somehow by other members of the Saudi royal family.
It is possible that the trigger for this elevation has been reports in the last few days of the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense, Mad Dog Mattis, turning increasingly against the campaign against Qatar pushed by MbS, despite Donald Trump’s repeated support for it via Twitter. Not only did Tillerson sell Qatar a bunch of F-15s a few days ago, but yesterday Tillerson demanded that the Saudis and Emiratis (from UAE) present their specific demands of the Qatar regime. It has been two weeks since they initiated this campaign against Qatar, with the clear support of Trump, but indeed they have neither issued specific demands that by satisfying them Qatar could bring about an end to this diplomatic and economic embargo, nor have they presented a shred of evidence of the Qataris financing terror groups, the supposed justification for all this, although pretty much everybody knows that it is a more general annoyance by the Saudis with their not just going along with whatever the Saudis want as well as in particular the Qataris being too friendly with Iran, although even the anti-Iran Tillerson and Mattis realize that the US is allied de facto on the ground in the war against ISIS, which the Saudis have done near zero to support, not to mention Qatar hosting the US major air base that is being used in the campaign against ISIS/Daesh.
Regarding the tangled relationships in the Saudi royal family, all these current players are descendants of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, who died in 1953 after uniting Saudi Arabia and having 43 sons and over 100 wives, although never more than 4 at a time. Certain wives were more important than others and produced more important sons, with basically only three in play here regarding possible future succession to the Saudi throne. Currently in charge and looking to cement their hold are the 7 sons of Abdulaziz’s favorite wife, his cousin, Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, the so-called Sudairi Seven, of whom only two remain alive, Abdul-Rahman who was once Deputy Minister of Defense but was removed from that position and the succession by arguing with other members of the family, and the current king, Salman. Of the others, the most important was Fahd who was king for over 20 years prior to Abdullah, dying in 2005, Sultan who long served as Defense Minister, and Nayef, father of the just deposed Muhammed from being Crown Prince. This current shuffle amounted to an intra-Sudairi Seven switch, with the Sudairis appearing to nail down a strictly hereditary line that is theirs.
The main potential rivals would be the sons of late King Abdullah, the most important of whom, Mulab, succeeded his father as Commander of the tribally based Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). He might have the potential for pulling off a military coup, although the official military under the control of the new Crown Prince is probably more powerful, if push were to come to shove. However, it seems that he does not have all that much support from other top Saudi royals.
More competent would be one of the sons of the late King Faisal, viewed without question as being the most competent and revered of the 43 sons of Abudlaziz, whose mother came from the al-Sheikh family, descendants of Muhammed bin Abdel-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi doctrine that the Saudi royal family has followed since 1755. At age 16 in 1919, Faisal represented his father at the Versailles conference. He would later serve him as Foreign Minister and continued to do so even as king until his assassination in 1975 at the hands of a nephew. The most competent of the second generation was his son, Sa’ud, educated at Harvard, who served as Foreign Minister from 1975 until just before his death in 2015, then the longest serving foreign minister in the world, but he is not available being dead. Another candidate might be his 72 year old brother, Princeton-educated Turki, who ran Saudi intelligence from 1977 to 2001, when he stepped down 9 days before 9/11, with it being convenient that he had been the one who selected Osama bin Laden to go to Pakistan and fight the Soviets in 1979. Turki has since served as ambassador to both the US and UK and is now Chairman of the King Faisal Foundation, a very powerful body, but he has reportedly angered family members by being too vocal in criticizing certain policies publicly. More serious and reportedly a candidate for the succession when Abdullah died in 2015, is another Faisal son, Khalid, now Governor of Mecca, also educated in Princeton. He is widely respected, but at 77, well, the Faisals are just too old, and quite a lot of commentary about the new appointment of MbS is that he is a millennial, and this is the moment of the millennials taking charge there, even if it is a “sloppy” and “unwise” and highly aggressive one that is doing so.
Frankly, this does not look good. Having a hot head running Saudi Arabia rather than a cool son of the late King Faisal could end up leading to a lot more bad things in an already much troubled Middle East.
Addendum: One should be wary about Wikipedia information regarding members of the Saudi royal family. Some of it is inaccurate. Thus Wikipedia claims that Hass bint Ahmed al-Sudairi died in 1969, but she was not only still alive more than a decade later, but was for all practical purposes running the kingdom from a hospital bed through her powerful sons.
Addendum, 6/22: Apparently Muhammed bin Nayef has made a recorded TV statement supporting his replacement as Crown Prince by Muhammed bin Salman. He has also been deposed as Minister of the Interior, no word on what else he might be doing, although no reports of jail or exile. Presumably they will treat him semi-decently if he continues to play along. Also, MbS is being portrayed as a sort of authentic “real Saudi,” whom youthful Saudis really like, and who has this dynamic vision of the future (women will get more jobs, even if they still do not work with men). He was educated inside Saudi Arabia and apparently does not speak English very well, unlike all those snobby Faisals with their Harvard and Princeton educations. Also, he wears sandals, presumably the distinctively Saudi kind, rather than loafers. So, a real man of the people, even if he is a sloppy hothead.