Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appears to be in failing health. The Saudi royal house is making extraordinary efforts to project an image of business-as-usual. But the lack of transparency regarding succession has fueled speculation about who will be designated heir once Crown Prince Salman takes over.
On November 26, Albawaba News reported that the king was “clinically dead.” Two days, an apology and a public appearance by Abdullah on state television later, it was confirmed that he had not, in fact, passed away during back surgery—his fourth—for which he had been hospitalized and unseen except by brothers and sons since November 17.
King Abdullah’s advanced age—a leaked U.S. cable placed him at ninety-six, much older than the previously estimated eighty-eight or eighty-nine—and failing health, highlighted by the need for various operations, causes apprehensions about the future stability of the oil giant in the face of rising domestic and international challenges. This operation was preceded by three others in 2010 and 2011 and a three-month stint abroad in February 2011 for medical treatment.
The median age of Saudi Arabia’s population is twenty-six, younger than the global average. Yet like Abdullah, those at the top of the Kingdom’s royal pyramid are old and often ill. Even Salman, next in line to the throne, at seventy-eight, is widely reported to be in declining health. In June 2010, for example, he reportedly underwent spinal surgery abroad , and he has had at least one stroke . Such quickly aging and ill leadership certainly can have geopolitical implications.
Until now, the maintenance of governmental stability was linked to lateral succession, in which power is transferred from brother to brother, usually based on seniority, rather than from father to son. Such tradition has ensured the choice of a successor with experience in management and leadership, but has also resulted in an aging pool of potential heirs. In addition, the practice of polygamy, particularly common among royalty, has resulted in an ever-increasing number of potential claimants to the throne and the lack of a clear age distinction between generations. Sons of Ibn Saud’s elder sons, for example, are older than their uncles, calling into question the definition of seniority. (Khalid ibn Faysal ibn Abdulaziz, for instance, born in 1941, is older than his uncle Muqrin ibn Abdulaziz, who was born in 1943.) Similarly, Ibn Saud has great-grandsons who are older than his grandsons.
The Next Generation
As a result of the increasing age of the ruling generation, it was decided as early as 1992, in the Basic Law of Governance promulgated by then-King Fahd, that a successor could also be selected from among the “descendants” of Ibn Saud’s sons. Although such an appointment has yet to occur, the age and lack of experience of the remaining living sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder suggests that the throne must be passed to the next generation. To date, however, few have been elevated to positions of real power.
This changed on November 5 when Mohammed bin Nayef, who is estimated to be in his mid 50s, was appointed to the crucial position of minister of the interior, replacing his uncle Ahmed bin Abdulaziz . The appointment places him in a critical position which had, until now, only been held by the current ruling generation. Prince Mohammed’s placement could accelerate the long-awaited rise of the next generation of leaders to positions of real power in the Kingdom, including the kingship. As Deputy Interior Minister, Mohammed effectively led the crackdown on Islamist militants in the Gulf state since September 11, 2001. His experience and position will make him one of the leading candidates for the throne when succession passes to his generation.
There is a complicating factor: Mohammed’s father and Crown Prince Salman’s shared mother (Nayef and Salman are part of the “Sudayri Seven,” the seven sons of Ibn Saud’s wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri). Prior practice suggests that alternating successors from familial branches has been used to check the power of groupings within the family such as this one. At this point, however, each of the Sudayri Seven and their sons could constitute separate branches in their own right. King Abdullah’s son, Mitab, the head of the National Guard, may be another potential option. Further, the mere appointment of a crown prince from the younger generation may raise fears among his counterparts that power and succession will shift to a particular familial branch, at the expense of others. Alternating heirs among various lines and increased appointments from the pool of grandsons to higher positions could potentially mitigate discontent.
Successful management of this generational transition is one of the most important tasks for the royal family. Avoiding a power struggle among the various rival claimants and appointing new leaders capable of guiding the Kingdom through a time of daunting challenges is essential for ensuring the stability of the regime. The increase in potential heirs increases the possibility of behind-the-scenes struggle, although an effort to maintain consensus, or the appearance of consensus, will continue to be sought as a means of ensuring stability.
Saudi history recalls that succession disputes and internal rivalries led to the weakening and downfall of the second Saudi state, which was likely recalled by Ibn Saud as he systematically excluded collateral branches from the line to the throne. It was, perhaps, with this lesson in mind that King Abdullah established the Allegiance Commission in 2006 to approve the crown princes, comprised of the founder’s sons (and, once they are decreased, of their eldest sons). According to the rules, the King will suggest three candidates and, should disagreement occur, a vote will take place. This will theoretically create the consensus necessary. (Although used to confirm Prince Nayef’s nomination, the Allegiance Commission was not called together following Crown Prince Salman’s appointment and the aforementioned policy has yet to be put into practice.)
The Reform Question
Another important step is transferring the crown to a third generation prince who will keep up the pace on political and social reform aimed at reconciling conservative Islamic traditions with the growing youthful population. Although certainly not moving at the speed that Western observers hope for, reform progressed under King Abdullah in the historically incremental manner that it often has. Such gradual change allows for the ruling family, in most instances, to obtain approval from the religious establishment. This preserves a relationship that serves as the basis of the regime’s legitimacy, and prevents serious backlash from conservative sectors of society.