Saudi Arabia’s crown prince likely to take over on king’s death, posing risk of disagreement over his successor

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Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud is primed to succeed the ailing King Abdullah. Source: PA

Key Points

  • With King Abdullah and his successor, Crown Prince Salman, suffering ill health, Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin (69 years old) is the last in the formal line of succession, and there is no established mechanism to transfer power to the next generation of princes.
  • Although the rulership will probably pass to Salman if the king dies in the coming weeks, competition between powerful rival Al Saud factions means there is no guarantee that Muqrin’s claim as Salman’s successor will be recognised.
  • If Muqrin’s claim is recognised, manoeuvring for position between competing Al Saud factions is unlikely to have a major impact on policy continuity, contract enforcement more generally or the overall cohesion of security forces.
  • In a less likely scenario, if Muqrin’s claim is not recognised following Abdullah’s death, there would be a high risk of visible infighting, domestic dissent, and a reduction in the cohesion of security forces loyal to Al Saud factions rather than the state.

EVENT

The Saudi Press Agency on 2 January 2015 announced that King Abdullah’s health has stabilised after he was fitted with a breathing tube. The 91-year-old king was admitted to the National Guard hospital in King Abdulaziz Medical City in Riyadh on 31 December 2014, and is undergoing treatment for pneumonia.

Saudi Arabia employs a fraternal line of succession, with the kingship passed successively through the sons of the Kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz al-Saud. King Abdullah’s younger brother, Salman (79 years old), was appointed crown prince in June 2012. Abdullah’s youngest brother, Muqrin (69 years old and last in the formal succession line), was appointed deputy crown prince in March 2014 – a specially created role intended to confirm his status as heir in waiting. IHS sources and social media monitoring have identified speculation within the religious establishment on the legality of appointing a deputy crown prince, as well as limited recognition of Muqrin’s pledge of allegiance ceremony held immediately following his appointment in March last year.

If King Abdullah dies in the coming weeks, the rulership is likely to pass to Salman, with the main Al Saud factions competing to secure the crown prince’s post. The crown prince must be appointed within 30 days of the new king receiving the pledge of allegiance – the Saudi equivalent of a coronation ceremony, confirmed by the Allegiance Council (AC). The AC is an untested body of senior princes charged with succession decisions following King Abdullah’s death. Each of the founder’s sons (or branch representative) holds a single vote out of 36, with a majority vote required to approve a decision.

The main factions

Given the lack of established mechanism to transfer power to the next generation, and the fact that thousands of princes are technically eligible to rule, succession dynamics necessitate the trimming of influence of those whose fathers never held significant political power. Moreover, the first king from the next generation is likely to pass the kingship to his brothers or sons, excluding his cousins and reducing their power permanently. In response, competition to control the line of succession has intensified between the two most powerful Al Saud factions. The first surrounds Abdullah’s sons, whose political power and influence has expanded via a series of government appointments since 2012. At the vanguard of this faction are Abdullah’s brother, Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin, and the king’s eldest son, Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) Mit’ab.

The second faction involves the ‘Sudairi’, to which Crown Prince Salman and Interior Minister Mohamed bin Nayef belong. For his part, Nayef’s decisions regarding succession are likely to prioritise retaining control over the interior ministry and protecting his brother’s governorship of the oil-rich eastern province, rather than supporting the crown prince.

The Sudairi faction has controlled the defence ministry since 1963 while King Abdullah and subsequently his son Mit’ab have been in control of the SANG since 1962. This planned division of military institutions is intended to mitigate the risk of a coup. It now gives the competing factions the option to militarily contest a succession arrangement that seeks to marginalise them, although exercising this option is only likely in the most extreme of cases. However, it will probably force other ruling family branches to ally themselves with either faction to further their own positions, as opposed to establishing a third coalition in the succession struggle.

Neither faction is likely to do anything to destabilise the workings of Saudi Aramco or the energy sector more broadly, as that would ensure strong foreign opposition to that group’s rule. It would also compromise the main source of wealth for the Al Saud and the Saudi government. In all cases, competition over succession is unlikely to immediately negatively affect the business environment via legislative reforms, for example, or lead to contract cancellation or revisions for large-scale foreign investment, which is typically associated with the state and/or powerful senior princes.

FORECAST

The most likely scenario involves competing Al Saud factions adhering to King Abdullah’s succession plan and recognising Muqrin’s claim as Salman’s immediate successor. In this case, manoeuvring for ascendancy between the most powerful factions is likely to be drawn out, with future competition focusing on securing votes in the AC. King Abdullah has been manoeuvring to formalise Mit’ab’s position in the line of succession, with Salman having similar aspirations for his own offspring. However, neither succeeded in gaining the upper hand before the most recent deterioration in Abdullah’s health. As a result, agreement on a compromise candidate for the post of deputy crown prince, such as Nayef, is probable. In this case, major cabinet reshuffles or the dismissal of senior princes, particularly Abdullah’s sons, would be unlikely immediately following Salman and Muqrin’s confirmation in post. Salman would also probably move to expand the power of his own sons, most notably Mohamed (current head of the crown prince’s court) and his eldest, Sultan, who is yet to hold a senior government post. Domestic policy is also unlikely to experience significant changes, while reshuffles are unlikely to affect ministries such as labour or commerce and industry, which are perceived to be providing relatively effective services. A stable succession would also place Saudi Arabia in the strongest position to deal with external and/or domestic security threats, such as resurgent Islamist militancy within the Kingdom or cross-border spillover from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen or the Islamic State in Iraq.

In a less likely scenario, if Salman appoints one of his sons as deputy crown prince, rivalry between the Sudairi and Abdullah factions would probably increase. This would increase the risk of corruption probes, contract cancellations, and non-payment risks for businesses associated with junior princes as the competing factions attempt to undermine one another. This is also likely to ensure that the ruling family and powerful families continue to dominate government positions, a common grievance among young educated Saudi nationals dissatisfied with available employment opportunities. Delays in appointing the deputy crown prince increase the risk of this scenario being triggered.

The least likely scenario, considering the high potential for politically destabilising outcomes, would involve a major reshuffle in the succession set out by Abdullah, with Muqrin bypassed and an alternative crown prince appointed. In this case, there would be a high risk of Muqrin and Abdullah’s sons issuing a challenge to Salman’s claim through the AC on medical grounds. Delays in appointing the crown prince increase the risk of this scenario being triggered.

Open challenges over succession and visible infighting carry a high risk of giving impetus to existing domestic opposition groups already critical of the Al Saud. These range from ultra-conservative Islamists that favour applying an extreme interpretation of Islam to centrists who seek to temper the power of the clergy and promote greater political representation at the expense of the Al Saud and network of powerful families. If visible infighting between the Al Saud emerges and takes hold, then this would present an elevated risk of such groups succeeding in capitalising on existing socio-economic grievances and mobilising a popular opposition movement capable of threatening the House of Saud in the coming years. A major threat to the Saudi monarchy would probably require persistent mass protests by the Sunni majority in the oil-rich eastern province, in Riyadh, as well as in the west where commercial enterprise is concentrated and the holy sites are located (in Mecca and Medinah). Isolated protests in the Islamist Wahhabi stronghold in the central region, on their own, are unlikely to become destabilising.