It appears that the senior princes who run Saudi Arabia don't read Western news reports about their country or the numerous analyses of Saudi affairs put forth by American and European think tanks. If they did, they would have known that the death of King Abdullah was going to set off a “succession crisis” that would divide the ruling family and possibly destabilize the kingdom. They clearly did not get the memo.
Within 24 hours of Abdullah's passing, a new king was on the throne—the very person who had long been designated the heir apparent—and his successor was in place as well. Moreover, the new king, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, promptly designated a nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as deputy crown prince, and thus second in line to the throne. By doing that, Salman seamlessly navigated the royal ship through the long-awaited and long-feared transition to the so-called “grandsons generation:” Mohammed would become the first king to be a grandson, rather than a son, of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud.
Saudi law specifies that a king must be a direct male descendant of Abdul Aziz, but the throne does not necessarily pass to the eldest brother or son of the king who dies. The selection process most closely resembles the election of a new pope in the Roman Catholic Church. A few dozen men who comprise an “Allegiance Council,” almost all of them over the age of 50, gather in private to choose a new ruler. There is no input from the public, and no information about the deliberations is given out. The official announcement is the only news. Mohammed bin Nayef's designation as deputy crown prince was reported to have been by a majority of those who voted, rather than unanimous, but of course the announcement did not say who voted no, or why.
There may well have been quarrels and rivalries within the family before these announcements were made—a half dozen other grandsons who are equal in stature or accomplishment, or nearly so, to Prince Mohammed are believed to harbor aspirations to the throne—but as usual there was little public indication of dissent. The first priority of the al-Saud family is always the perpetuation of their dynasty. The princes found out decades ago, during an open power struggle between two sons of Abdul Aziz, that overt division and dissension within the family threatens their rule, and thus they keep their dirty linen, if any, out of public view.
The orderly transition should not have been a surprise. This is the fourth time since 1975 that a king has died and been promptly succeeded by another senior prince with the approval, or at least the grudging acceptance, of the entire ruling family. Even in 1975, when King Faisal was assassinated and the family had little time to ponder its choices, succession was quick and smooth. This time, with Abdullah at least 90 years old and hospitalized for weeks before his death, the senior princes who make up the Allegiance Council had plenty of time to sort out their decisions, which amounted to acceptance of a line of succession that Abdullah had put in place.
Under the succession law promulgated by Abdullah, King Salman is the first who did not have sole power to designate his successor. He accepted as crown prince the half-brother whom Abdullah had designated deputy crown prince, Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz. Prince Muqrin, born in 1945, is one of the few sons of the founder still living, and will almost certainly be the last of that generation to assume the throne, assuming that he outlives Salman, who is 79.
Over the past few years, it has been conventional wisdom among Western analysts that Salman is in failing health and may be showing signs of diminished capacity. But Salman is younger than Abdullah was when he assumed the throne, and there is little empirical evidence to support the belief that he is failing. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a medical doctor who met with Salman less than two weeks ago, told Politico that he was looking for signs of infirmity and detected none. Salman as crown prince and defense minister had maintained an energetic schedule of foreign travel over the past year; as recently as November, he represented Saudi Arabia at a G-20 meeting in Australia.
From the perspective of the United States and the West, the fact of an orderly succession in Saudi Arabia is more important than the identities of the princes upon whom that succession is built. None of the new leaders is likely to seek fundamental changes in Saudi economic or strategic policy, which is closely aligned with Washington despite King Abdullah's well-known differences with the Obama administration. Mohammed bin Nayef, who retains his position as interior minister and thus emerges as one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, is well-regarded in Washington for his relentless opposition to terrorism and Islamic extremism. James B. Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has said that he found Prince Mohammed to be “the hardest working person I have ever seen in any government, and I spent a lot of time with him.”
The fact that a new team is in place in Riyadh and is apparently unchallenged does not eliminate all questions about how the Saudis will conduct their affairs during Salman's reign.
Some doubt surrounds the staying power of Crown Prince Muqrin. He is not believed to have any personal constituency: no ministry or military force has been under his command, although he has many years of administrative experience as a governor of two provinces. His designation in the line of succession by King Abdullah in 2014 was something of a surprise because Abdullah had fired him less than two years earlier as head of the kingdom's intelligence directorate, a key security post. It is not known how well Salman will work with him or even whether Salman plans to retain him as crown prince.
Larger questions surround Salman's designation of his son Mohammed as minister of defense, one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom. At the age of 34, he is a callow youth by Saudi standards, although one of his most renowned predecessors in that post, the late Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, was the same age when he took the job. Although he has no military experience, Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be in charge, among other things, of the kingdom's massive and expensive weapons acquisition programs. He has a reputation for being a brusque and effective political infighter, and is known to be ambitious. Along with Mohammed bin Nayef at the Interior Ministry and Abdullah's son Prince Miteb as commander of the National Guard, the principal domestic security force, Prince Mohammed becomes one of the triumvirate who will run the armed forces, the border security police, and the newly-formed Facilities Security Force, charged with protecting the oil industry and other vital installations.
More intriguing is that Prince Mohammed bin Salman was simultaneously named chief of the royal court, a critical position analogous to White House chief of staff. King Salman wasted no time in getting rid of the previous occupant of that position, a non-royal named Khalid al-Tuwaijri, who had a shadowy reputation as a sort of Richelieu or Rasputin, controlling access to King Abdullah.
How Prince Mohammed will be received as royal gatekeeper by a family and a society that equate age with wisdom may not become apparent to outsiders for quite some time.