The Saudi Succession Stalemate

April 9, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Saudi Arabia Tags: Saudi ArabiaHouse Of SaudRoyal FamilyRiyadh

The Saudi Succession Stalemate

Is Saudi Arabia's leadership crisis inevitable?


Obviously, only King Salman knows what he intends. Given that he is elderly and yields much to his son’s control, it raises the question of why he hasn’t already named his young son, in whom he has such confidence, as crown prince. Some insist the young man has prepared a decree for the king to sign that would do just that. Timing here could be everything. Were the king to die without having promoted his son to crown prince, many Saudis believe that Mohammed bin Nayef as king would waste little time before removing his cousin from power. The issue isn’t personal animosity between the princes, but rather how power will be passed in the future. Mohammed bin Salman already has sons who could succeed him. The crown prince, unusual for a Saudi, has only daughters. That fact clearly eases the minds of other branches of the royal family who still could have an opportunity to be king.

Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who is also minister of interior and the individual in charge of keeping his country safe from domestic terrorism, is largely invisible these days. While the young deputy crown prince appears nightly on television alongside his father meeting foreign dignitaries, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef is visible primarily on omnipresent posters depicting the king and his two deputies. Trapped between the king he must serve and the cousin who may well dislodge him, Mohammed bin Nayef has quietly continued to earn plaudits from his fellow countrymen for largely keeping the kingdom safe from Islamic State terrorists and their young Saudi collaborators. He is seen as a quiet doer, not a talker. Many express the view that the king, however devoted to his son, is reluctant to remove the crown prince who has been so effective for most of the last twenty years first in defeating Al Qaeda in the kingdom and more recently in quelling the Islamic State. As minister of interior, this English-speaking prince has worked very closely with the United States on counterterrorism and is widely admired by U.S. officials. This, however, could be a negative for the prince, given the palpable disappointment in the royal family over U.S. Mideast policy in recent years.


Saudis, royal or otherwise, are convinced the king has the sole power to make whatever decision he chooses. Indeed, King Salman almost surely has more power than any of his brothers did as king precisely because his once-powerful brothers are dead. Certainly over the past few decades, the kingdom had multiple centers of power functioning almost as mini-kings under the powerful Al Saud senior brothers: Salman as governor of the capital city of Riyadh for more than forty years; his brother Sultan as defense minister and then crown prince before his death in 2011; and their full brother, Nayef, crown prince and minister of interior with access to all the kingdom’s secrets and the ruthlessness to use them to control royals and ordinary Saudis alike before his death in 2012. The late King Abdullah, as head of the Saudi National Guard for nearly fifty years, had his own power base even before becoming king in 2005. All are gone, and there are no more princes with genuinely independent power bases of their late fathers, not even Mutaib bin Abdullah, who succeeded his father as head of the Saudi National Guard, or Mohammed bin Nayef, who like his late father is the minister of interior.

“Salman can do anything he wants to,” says a longtime Saudi businessman and former member of the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s unelected parliament. “He is the only King who could. Power is concentrated now. He is popular with the people and strongly supported by the religious scholars.”

In sum, the passing of power from the late King Abdullah to King Salman underscores a stark fact of the Saudi monarchy: the power of a ruling monarch is unchallenged while he is alive, but dies absolutely with him. In his last years as king, Abdullah made unprecedented efforts to control Al Saud succession from his grave. Never fond of the so-called “Sudairi seven,” a group of seven full brothers including three who served him as crown prince—Sultan, Nayef and Salman—he sought to deny their sons, especially Mohammed bin Salman, a role in leadership by creating the new position of deputy crown prince in 2014 and naming his youngest half-brother, Mugrin. In effect, he was selecting a future King Salman’s crown prince, according to knowledgeable Saudis. As Abdullah saw it, these observers say, upon his death when his crown prince, Salman, became king, Prince Mugrin would become the new crown prince and be able to block Mohammed bin Salman’s entry to the Al Saud succession.

But King Salman waited less than four months to remove Mugrin and elevate a Sudairi, Mohammed bin Nayef, to crown prince, and then use the deputy crown prince slot the late king had created to put his own son into the line of succession. Obviously, if the king doesn’t name his son crown prince before his death, history may repeat itself with a new king also removing his inherited crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Karen Elliott House is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Image: Flickr/United States Secretary of Defense. Public Domain.