Principle of Seniority: Still Relevant?
Royal succession in Saudi Arabia has traditionally rested on the principle of seniority, while by-passing those deemed incapable or disruptive to royal family’s unity.
On the face of it, the succession should be straightforward: when King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud dies, the power will pass to his eldest siblings, and along that line eventually reach the younger generation of Saudi princes. And on it goes, the family business known as the Saudi Kingdom.
However, most of Abdullah’s siblings are elderly or in poor health, and there are hundreds of younger princes to choose from. There’s no guarantee that somewhere along the way family rivalries wouldn’t break out in the open, making the question of royal succession one of the biggest threats to the stability of the one Arab monarchy most resistant to change.
The Grand Old Generation: Sons of the Founding Monarch
Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the revered founding father of Saudi Arabia, ruled the kingdom between 1932 and 1953, but it was his sons from multiple marriages who oversaw the transformation of the desert kingdom into the richest and most influential Arab state, with a curious marriage of modern technology, rigid Wahabi religious code, and near-absolutist monarchical rule.
The grand generation is slowly about to retire. The most powerful sons of Abdul Aziz include:
- King Abdullah (b.1924): The king is suffering from multiple illnesses, delegating much of his day-to-day affairs to the Crown Prince.
- Prince Salman (b. 1935): Crown Prince and next in line since the death of his brother Nayef in June 2012, Salman has served as governor of capital Riyadh for five decades. He is one of the four remaining members of the so-called “Sudairi Seven” clan, a powerful block of seven full-brothers.
- Prince Ahmed (b. 1942): The youngest of the Sudairi clan (b.1942), Prince Ahmed succeeded Nayef as the Interior Minister in June 2012.
- Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (b. 1945): Director General of the intelligence services, Muqrin holds a key security post.
With even the youngest of senior royals in his sixties, the torch will be passed in quick succession among the remaining sons of Abdul Aziz, all of which are likely to try and secure the crown for their own family line.
Confusion Over New Rules of Succession
To manage a smooth succession to the third generation of royals, the state passed two laws over the past twenty years:
- Basic Law: Passed by King Fahd in 1992, the law enabled the monarch to escape the rigidity of the seniority rule when choosing the next crown prince by also considering the candidate’s experience and political skill.
- Allegiance Council: Unveiled by King Abdullah in 2006, the Council brought together 35 senior royals (both younger and older generation), in theory empowered to approve or reject the king’s appointment of crown prince.
In practice, however, none of this has really worked. Saudi monarchs have remained faithful to the principle of seniority when naming the crown prince, for fear of instability if their choice of a younger prince created discord among other branches of the family. Abdullah may be a king but he does not have the power to pass the throne to his son Mutaib, the commander of the National Guard.See Reuters' Factbox on the Allegiance Council.
No Easy Shift To the Younger Generation
Saudi Arabia has remained remarkably stable because of the extraordinary cohesion of its royal family. Disagreements occur frequently but they are always settled consensually for the greater good of the family and the realm.
However, when the power passes to the third generation, some family branches will win, others will lose out. Among the main contenders are Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Mecca, Khalid bin Sultan, deputy defense minister, and Mohammed bin Nayef, the son of the late crown prince Nayef.
The stakes of holding supreme power in the world’s largest oil exporter are huge. With no institutional succession mechanism, and dramatic changes in the region, will the family be able to hold together?