The Sa’udi Succession Redux

The recent changes to the succession in Sa’udi Arabia instituted by King Salman bin Abdel Aziz have unleashed a flood of speculation as to why. The changes have according to the Sa’udi statements on the subject been endorsed by the Allegiance Council and given the way that consensus politics within the Kingdom work that is probably true.

The removal of Muqrin Bin Abdel Aziz from the line of succession strikes me as a bit surprising given the legitimacy that all of the sons of Abdel Aziz have enjoyed. If one has to guess and more often than not, that is the case in analyzing all matters to do with politics in the Kingdom, Muqrin was a protégé of the late King Abdullah and does not enjoy widespread support among the senior Princes.

The promotion of Mohammed bin Nayef to Crown prince locks up the succession into the next generation and further removes speculation as to how power is going to transfer. The promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the son of the King to deputy Crown Prince is more surprising. However, I think both moves need to be interpreted in light of the security situation the Kingdom is facing.

Given the fact that Iran is expanding its influence in the region and fuelling sectarian strife coupled with the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) security will be the uppermost concern of the family. Given the appalling way that the United States has abandoned its leadership role in the Middle East not to mention the current administrations misguided attempt to thaw relations with Iran, it is no wonder that the Sa’udis are reacting the way that they are and the change in the succession reflects this.

Nayef has a proven track record in fighting AQAP within Sa’udi Arabia and is expected to maintain the hard line. Although Mohammed bin Salman is young and fairly inexperienced it appears that he has been brought in to strengthen the Sa’udi war effort in the Yemen. This war is critical to the Al sa’ud’s perceived security as their southern provinces are predominantly Yemeni and this is also a clear cut proxy war with Iran.

Finally, I believe that we can read into the succession changes that in the post Abdullah Kingdom that the Sudeiri princes are re-asserting their power and getting control of the key ministries, Interior and Defense. It remains to be seen if they can replace Mitaab bin Abdullah as head of the National Guard or whether that division of power will remain in place.

Also of interest in terms of where the power is going is that Mohammed bin Salman was also named head of the board of the Sa’udi Arabian oil company (ARAMCO). His brother Abdelaziz was promoted to Deputy Oil Minister in February, so the King is consolidating power over the country’s principal asset.