Tally Helfont is the Director of FPRI’s Program on the Middle East.
Friday has been a busy day in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was only mere hours ago that Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (90) passed away and his successor is now firmly in place. The new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (79), had occupied the role of Crown Prince for two and a half years prior to his accession to the throne, rendering the announcement of his appointment more a matter of protocol. Salman’s successor, Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (69), also came as no surprise as he too had been named by late King Abdullah as his Deputy Crown Prince back in March. It isn’t as if there were many to choose from. Unlike in Western monarchies, where succession is passed father to son, in Saudi Arabia, it can pass between brothers. Salman and Muqrin are among the remaining sons of the late King Abdulaziz (1876-1953) eligible for the position. However, these appointments were not the only ones to be made in the wake of the succession.
King Salman made a few strategic appointments of his own today, moving his sons and some of his allies into key positions within the kingdom. For example, Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud (34), Salman’s son, has been appointed defense minister (replacing Salman himself) and head of the royal court, replacing influential advisor to the late king, Khaled al-Tuwaijri. Another appointment of particular note was the naming of Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (55) as the new Deputy Crown Prince – marking the first time that a grandson of Abdulaziz is (second) in line to the throne. This appointment begins to address questions surrounding the quandary of non-patrilineal succession favored in the Kingdom by finally introducing a treacherous generational change into the lines of succession from the sons of Abdulaziz to his grandsons. But it is much more than that.
The other, if not more important aspect of these “new” faces on the block has to do specifically with their matrilineal identity. Abdulaziz had many wives. Therefore, most of his sons are half-brothers. Salman is one of the “Sudairi Seven” – an influential alliance of seven full brothers born to King Abdulaziz and Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. The Sudairi Seven represent the largest sibling cluster in Al-Saud family. Though the now late King Abdullah was not one of the Sudairi seven, many among the new cadre are affiliated in some way with this powerful bloc. Sudairi influence stretches throughout the kingdom, encompassing a host of minor and senior posts within Saudi Arabia. The appointment of Mohammed bin Nayef not only reasserts the supremacy of this alliance since the deaths of King Fahd and Crown Princes Sultan and Nayef reduced the bloc’s strength, but also potentially secures the Saudi crown in Sudairi hand forevermore. By finally making the jump to the generation of the grandsons of Abdulaziz, and putting a male of Sudairi lineage in line for the crown as Deputy Crown Prince, hundreds of Abdulaziz’s progeny, many of whom are sons of a former king, will likely lose any prospect of ascending to the throne.
Though the consolidation of power within a certain familial bloc is not surprising in such a tribal society, its implications are nonetheless important as the stability of the kingdom in a post-succession period may depend on it. The current climate in the region is certainly a breeding ground for instability so consolidating power within a small loyal group bound by ‘asabiya (tribal solidarity) may ultimately prove to be the glue that helps the kingdom weather this transition successfully.
For his part, Salman expressed sorrow over the passing of Abdullah in his first televised speech as king, and affirmed that the kingdom will hold the same “correct path” it has taken since it was founded in 1932. He then went on to declare via Twitter: “I ask Allah to make me succeed in serving our dear people and in achieving their wishes, and that He keeps our country and nation safe and stable, and He protect it from all mischief and harm.”