Thinking Aloud: Saudi’s New Succession Plan

Apr. 29, 2015 by Darius 

Today, the king of Saudi Arabia announced a major government reshuffle.  The previous crown prince, the king’s half-brother, was dismissed and replaced by the king’s nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef.  The king’s son, the current minister of defense, was announced as deputy crown prince.  Saudi’s long-awaited generational shift is here, but as is always the case in Saudi, the real picture is more complicated.

The appointments appear to signal a continuation in Saudi’s more aggressive, assertive policy.  Mohammed bin Nayef, the new crown prince, has been largely responsible for anti-terrorism efforts in the kingdom since 2005.  Both he and the 30-year-old defense minister, now second in the line to the throne, are major architects of Saudi’s current intervention in Yemen.

However, Saudi motivations for this posture are more complicated.  In previous months and years, the government’s prestige has been at a low point, and it faced a challenge of legitimacy from the kingdom’s many Islamists over the dual threats of ISIS and Iranian expansion.  At the same time, the royal family was targeted by predictable criticism from liberals.  Starting a war in Yemen, or rather intervening in an existing one, solved these problems nicely.  By taking the fight to the Shias in Yemen, Iran-backed or not, the Saudi government convinced the Islamists to rally behind it.  At the same time, stirring the pot in Yemen demonstrated once again to the Saudi people the risks of rising up against a stable government.  The war in Yemen has also been a coming out party of sorts for the new core of the royal government, including the new crown prince and deputy crown prince.

Today’s announcement is especially noteworthy because when King Salman dies, power will shift to a new generation for the first time since the death of the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz al-Saud.  This generational shift has been a long time in coming.  Although previous Saudi monarchs have made an attempt to promote their children, not their siblings, as their successors, internal royal politics have, until today, prevented such decisive action.

However, court intrigue remains a major factor in Saudi.  Given that King Salman reportedly suffers from dementia, it is highly unlikely he is the only force, or even the primary force, behind the decision to promote the next generation into the highest echelon of the state.  It remains unclear who exactly is pulling the strings in the Saudi royal family—or how these actions will play out into the future.

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