Paul Pillar

The Old Princes Stay in Control

After the death last month of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan, other shoes necessarily would drop. The biggest one dropped Monday, with the announcement that the longtime governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, is replacing Sultan as minister of defense. This move, which was hardly a surprise, could be read as a solidification of the power of the Sudairi Seven, the full brothers and political allies who have included Sultan, Salman, the late King Fahd, and the interior minister and new crown prince, Nayef. It probably should be read at least as much as a solidification of control for the time being of the generation of the sons of King Abd al-Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia—notwithstanding much talk and speculation about when more power would shift to the grandsons.

Salman is well equipped to fill his enhanced role. He is an intelligent man who is reported to have support among the grandsons, notwithstanding whatever impatience some of the latter may have over succession issues. Taking over the defense ministry will strengthen his claim to someday become king. Think how good it would look for an American politician to have a resumé that included experience both as a big-city mayor and as secretary of defense. Salman—the only one of the senior generation of Saudi princes I have ever met—is an imposing presence who is said to physically resemble his father more than do any of the other sons of Abd al-Aziz.

One bit of good news in this transition is that the senior princes evidently have a clear idea of how they intend to preserve stability at the top over the next few years. Another bit is that Salman is someone the United States ought to be comfortable working with, including on defense matters in his new portfolio. One connection of sorts he has with the United States is through his son Prince Sultan bin Salman, who became the first Arab (and Muslim) astronaut when he flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985.

But the further issues of transition, involving the generation of the grandsons, will still have to be faced before long. (Salman is already in his mid-seventies.) The Allegiance Council, charged by King Abdullah with naming new kings and crown princes, first performed that duty last month when Nayef was named crown prince. But it was hardly much of a test for the council, given that Nayef was the odds-on favorite. The council consists of the surviving sons of Abd al-Aziz and sons of those who are already deceased. Time and mortality are bringing the grandsons ever closer to their moment.