18 June 2012

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Will the death of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud allow the world's biggest oil exporter to soften its approach, become more flexible and adapt to the changing expectations of its large youth population? Or will the Saudi royal family become increasingly preoccupied with their own succession problems in a country where government is a family business? If the latter, political risks will keep rising. 

Next in Throne

Prince Nayef was the most powerful conservative force in Saudi Arabia, running the interior ministry, the internal security forces and the religious police. He was opposed to women voting or driving. His death was hardly unexpected, and the Al Saud family will have been preparing for this for some time. 

The family will hold internal consultations through its Allegiance Council, a body of senior princes that the king set up in 2006 to help advise him on his choice of successor, to ensure that there can be a consensual process. Power is very top down in Saudi Arabia but is not entirely centralized. The need to achieve some measure of consensus among senior princes is probably the main source of checks and balances on the Saudi ruler's power. This also means the likelihood of radical change in policies is limited. The new crown prince may adopt a more reformist approach but within the constraints and red lines of the system.

Prince Salman, a younger half-brother of the king, who took over as defence minister when the previous crown prince died, is generally assumed to be the next in line. Prince Salman, is seen as a more liberal figure, and is a bit younger, but it's all relative - he's in his 60s rather than mid-70s. Don't expect any radical change coming from the new crown prince, but perhaps a subtle shift of tone.

The next crown prince will have an opportunity to take a more constructive approach towards addressing the root causes of unrest in the Eastern province, which Prince Nayef always dismissed as the result of Iranian meddling rather than the symptom of local grievances.  

There could also be a subtle shift in policy towards Bahrain and Yemen, in which Prince Nayef played a very important role (both countries are seen as partly the business of the interior ministry given their proximity to Saudi Arabia and potential impact on its internal security).


The Saudi royal family are likely to be increasingly preoccupied with internal family politics - which could prove a distraction from the need to reform and adapt to accommodate their own population's needs. There is a wider generational succession challenge throughout the Saudi kingdom, playing out in different ministries and other centres of power. Choosing the crown prince will be the easy bit compared to this wider and more drawn out process.