Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme (on leave until June 2017)
The succession change in Saudi Arabia continues the transition to a younger generation of princes, and the consolidation of power around the king’s son.
Saudi King Salman stands during the arrival of US President Barack Obama in Riyadh on 27 January 2015. Photo via Getty Images.Saudi King Salman stands during the arrival of US President Barack Obama in Riyadh on 27 January 2015. Photo via Getty Images.

King Salman’s reshuffle of the order of succession today has placed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, as third in line to the throne of Saudi Arabia, after the interior minister and crown prince. While it is hardly unusual in the Middle East for a ruler to make his son a successor, it is only the second time this has happened in Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohammed has been closely associated with the airstrikes in Yemen and, in the immediate term, the move could presage an even harder line against Iran. 

Since 1953, when the country’s founder, King Abdel-Aziz, passed away and gave the throne to his son Saud, the crown has been passed between Saud’s brothers and half-brothers. King Salman is the sixth son of Abdel-Aziz to take the throne, and has now signalled that he will be the last.

His predecessor, King Abdullah, was already laying the ground for the transition to the next generation – something obviously needed given the advanced age of most of the sons of Abdel-Aziz. It was  Abdullah who made the 55-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, interior minister, bypassing his own half-brother, Ahmed. In the interests of balancing power among different branches of the large and complex ruling family, Abdullah did not appoint any of his sons as successors to the throne, instead opting for a younger half-brother, Muqrin. He also set up a council of princes to approve Muqrin, to ensure the family was united over the political succession. But now the council has simply moved to approve the new king’s choice instead, raising questions about its capacity or willingness to differ from the king.

Rapid ascent

There are bound to be internal rivalries and questions about the rapidity of Mohammed bin Salman’s elevation, especially since King Salman has removed key appointments from two of Abdullah’s sons and two of the sons of the previous crown prince, Sultan. In January Mohammed bin Salman was appointed defence minister, head of the royal court and head of a new committee on the economy. Meanwhile King Salman made Mohammed bin Nayef crown prince and head of a new committee on defence and security. And he reorganized various government functions to put wide-ranging powers in the hands of the two committees headed by the two Mohammeds. Meanwhile, Mohammed bin Salman has become the public face of the Saudi operations in Yemen, and his promotion underscores the king’s commitment to a more assertive foreign policy.

Expectations of a more assertive foreign policy are also underlined by the appointment of a new, younger-generation (and non-royal) foreign minister, Adel Jubeir. He replaces Prince Saud bin Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, who had held his post for 30 years and was the world’s longest-serving foreign minister. Jubeir was previously the ambassador to Washington, underlining the centrality of that relationship to Saudi foreign policy, despite Riyadh’s various expressions of frustration with the US over Iran, the Arab uprisings and Iraq.

Relationship with Iran

Relations with Iran could become yet more difficult. Four years ago, the Saudi government accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guard of sponsoring a plot to assassinate Jubeir in the US. Suspicion of Iran is the norm in Saudi elite circles, but this personal experience may sour the relationship even further. Mohammed bin Salman’s leading role in the operations in Yemen could also become a liability. The airstrikes there may have demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s aerial power and ability to marshal Arab allies, but show little sign of achieving their political aims: strengthening the Yemeni president or weakening the Houthis, who are supported by Iran.

In recent years Saudi Arabia has been clear about what it doesn’t want to see in the region: the rise of Iran, the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood or Arab democratization. The challenge for its new elite will be to devise a constructive vision for their foreign policy – starting with a political endgame in Yemen.

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