King Abdullah 2 – Crown Princes 0

Written by: Jordi Comins 

Translation: María Blanco Palencia

Until the beginning of the revolts at the end of 2010, the hereditary transmission of political power took a privileged position in the majority of analyses of the Arab countries. From Tripoli to Sana’a, the illustrious and long-lived rulers seemed to have secured their sovereignty inside their families. However, as this moment arrived, the Arab street has not permitted the perpetuation of names like Gaddafi, Mubarak, or Abdullah Saleh –among others– as rulers of their countries. This situation has nothing to do with the one in Saudi Arabia, where the latest events signal that it will continue being ruled by the consensus of its owners –the Saud family–, in the name as well as in reality.

The decease of crown prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz al-Saud last 16th June 2012 is a harsh blow for the Saudi royal family. This was not only because of the fact that he was known to be the strong man of the Government and the scourge of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; moreover, in mid-October 2011, Prince Sultan, who was since 2005 the first in the line of succession of King Abdullah, deceased. In spite of everything, recent events have promoted the appearance of new rumours and speculations on the issue of succession. The ageing of the most influential members of the royal family and the existence of a new generation of princes –grandsons of King Abdelaziz– with increasing power, poses a serious challenge to the image of unity and cohesion that the monarchy intends to transmit.

The election of prince Salman as the new heir to the throne has not surprised anyone. What has brought about some commentaries is the extreme swiftness with which the appointment has been carried out. The speedy consensus reached by the Loyal Commission and the publication of the Royal Decree –less than twenty-four hours after Prince Nayef’s funeral– can be interpreted as a message of internal agreement inside the Saudi kingdom. However, we must not rule out another simpler hypothesis; that the decision had already been taken long time ago, taking into account that the “house of Saud is still not ready for a major generational change”, as explained by Sami al-Faraj, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies of Kuwait.

Since 1953, three of the five successions have been carried out in an ordinary way. The Sudairi Clan[1] has had a main role in the kingdom’s affairs since King Fahd was crowned in 1982. From the four living brothers, only two occupy politically relevant positions: Prince Salman, Minister of Defence, and Prince Ahmad, who has just been promoted as new Minister of Interior and will start, at the age of 70, to officially occupy the third step in the line of succession.

However, everything can change if Prince Salman becomes Head of State. The new heir could use his influence as mediator in the royal family and his good relations with main world leaders –partially guaranteed by his position as Minister of Defence[2] —to give way to the new generation of princes and thereby favouring his descendants. On the other hand, the Saudi succession represents an opportunity for change. For the house of Saud, the generational transition of power is a challenge as well as a need imposed by the current political and social contentious context in the MENA region. It is a delicate issue that directly affects two interrelated power spheres, US diplomacy and the Saudi Royal family, in search for a common objective: to prolong Saudi hegemony in the context of regional stability.

We should take into account that, even if the impact of the Arab Spring has not been smaller in Saudi Arabia than in other countries, the most influential country of the Arabian Peninsula is not completely immune to its effects. This is clear proof of the power suspicions of the stick and carrot policy in Bahrain and YemenIn Saudi territory, timid university protests demanding more civil and political rights could end up spreading beyond mentioned scope. Among the main demands are those intended towards greater freedom of association and the creation of political parties. Without doubt, it is an indispensable reform in order to make the Consultative Assembly (Majlis as-Shura) al elected body with real political power.

Finally, Prince Salman’s reputation is based on his organization qualities and his capacity to exercise a judicious leadership. One of his main achievements was the modernization of Riad while he was the governor, especially for the management related to population growth which has increased from 200,000 habitants during the 60s to the current five million. Prince Salman’s profile, in principle more liberal than his predecessor, does not guarantee that the kingdom’s policies will make a u-turn during the next years. According to Jane Kininmont, Chatham House expert in the MENA region, “the new Crown Prince may adopt a more reformist approach but within the constraints and red lines of the system”.

[1] It is the most compact and influential block of brothers in the royal Saudi family, and is composed by the seven sons born from the marriage of King Abdulaziz bin Saud, founder of the modern State of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and his favourite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al Sudairi. The current Saudi monarch does not belong to this clan.

[2] During the last decade, the budget for the military in Saudi Arabia has increased by 90%., according to data provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). This spending represented 8.7% of the GDP in 2011. Only some weeks ago, Prince Salman visited Spain to see the possibility of buying armament made in Spain: 200 Leopard Tanks.

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J. Comins

J. Comins is a political scientist specialising in Diplomacy, International Relations and Security. In recent years, he has served with the United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and Mali (MINUSMA), and also worked as safety advisor for the International NGO Safety Organisation (INSO) in Afghanistan. He occasionally contributes analysis to the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (Ministry of Defence) and the International Security Studies Group (GESI) at the Department of Political Science of the University of Granada.

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