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Feature Article

The Death of Prince Mish'al - Demise of the Allegiance Committee?

With the death of Prince Mish'al, Chairman of the Allegiance Commission - the formal entity established to decide succession matters - King Salman has an opportunity to reconstitute the body and restore its relevancy at a time of great uncertainty over the role of his favorite son, the controversial Muhammad, who serves as deputy crown prince. It is a course of action Salman is unlikely to take.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The eldest surviving son of the Kingdom's founder Ibn Saud, Mish'al was born in Riyadh in 1926, to a Lebanese mother, Shahida (died 1938), who reportedly was the favorite wife of the king. Having held various cabinet posts in the 1950s, including that of defense minister from May 1951 to 1953, Mish'al disappeared from public life for a time to concentrate on business, but re-emerged to serve as Governor of Makkah Province from 1963 to 1971. With a large number of business interests, notably Yanbu Cement company, Mish'al was one of the richest of the family princes. Widely respected, his perceived neutral stance on family politics made him the ideal choice to serve as chairman of the Allegiance Committee (bay'ah) which the late King Abdallah set up in December 2007. This role was considered to be significant, giving Mish'al influence in the succession decision-making process.

Abdallah was keen to establish the monarchy on a firmer footing than had so far been the case, making succession more a matter of law and less a matter of personal, arbitrary preference. Traditionally, the shaykhly families of the Gulf had chosen their leaders on the basis of individual qualities such as courage and intelligence, physical prowess in battle, and diplomatic skill in resolving tribal disputes, but several developments threatened the family's ability to carry on with these archaic methods. The legalistic nature of the bay'ah went some ways towards satisfying an increasingly educated and savvy population's demand for some measure of accountability from their leaders, and the disastrous example of King Saud's attempt to set up an alternate dynastic line of succession served as an ever-present reminder that allowing the monarch to choose his own successor was no longer tenable. Furthermore, with advances in technology and education, it was no longer enough to possess the qualities admired by the bedouin; actual experience in governing needed to be considered as well. Finally, the religious establishment held more sway than had been the case in decades past. Emboldened since the 1980s and allowed greater influence in social affairs and education, the clerics demanded some say in deciding who was fit to govern (in fact, it was originally intended that senior clerics be included in the bay'ah along with the royal members).

There was one other development, however, that may have been the real impetus behind Abdallah's desire to formally institutionalize the succession process - the rise of the so-called "Sudayri Seven", the full brothers of one of Ibn Saud's favorite wives Hussa al-Sudayri. The brothers had by that time acquired vast wealth and influence, controlling large swathes of the economy in addition to the huge fiefdoms of Defense and Interior, which lent an aura of inevitability to their eventual takeover. That they would soon call into being a Sudayri line of succession was nearly taken for granted in the early 1990s, and the deaths of several of the Seven, and worsening health of the remaining members, did little to assuage such fears, as Sultan, Salman and Nayif only became more powerful. Abdallah, with no full brothers and few allies, was vulnerable and feared not only that his own legacy would be put at risk, but that the family's continued rule was at stake - the wrong choice of leader could easily spell the end of Al Saud rule. The bay'ah was seen as a mechanism to shut out the Sudayri - their influence would be drastically attenuated, with their half brothers and nephews given (in theory) equal say in choosing a successor. The playing field was levelled.

At the time of the bay'ah's announcement, the idea was widely praised. It was assumed that palace intrigue would vanish overnight, and political stability would ensue. Many cheered that the fearsome Sudayri had been neutered. Almost immediately, however, the shortcomings of the bay'ah became apparent, and in practice it never played a factor.

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Past Feature Articles
Hazards Ahead For Muhammad bin Salman: Trump To The Rescue?

The star of the deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, will rise now that the Americans have thrown their weight behind Saudi efforts to reign in Iranian regional influence. President Trump, an unlikely ally, may ensure that Muhammad's place in the succession is secure.

An Asian Tour: Opportunity At Home?

King Salman's Asian tour left the Crown Prince in charge of affairs as his deputy. But while the king's visit to Indonesia garnered worldwide attention for the displays of wealth and the size of his retinue, Muhammad bin Nayif was presented with a golden opportunity to raise his profile at home.

Taking the Measure of the New Administration: Change in Store, but for Whom?

Despite U.S. President Trump's unorthodox style, Saudi has appeared to take the new administration in stride. This is not solely due to diplomatic niceties; the royals are cautiously optimistic that the Americans will lend their weight to a regional effort to contain and confront Iran, a matter which overshadows all else. But the appearance of Trump on the scene threatens to upend royal family domestic politics as well.

Move, Countermove - Searching For Equilibrium?

The Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, although facing pressure on multiple fronts, has skillfully outmanouevred his adversaries by backing them into a corner. By making himself indispensable, he forces potential challengers to his place in the succession to accept an outcome they would not otherwise have chosen.

OPEC Deal: Tactical Retreat or Admission of Failure?

At first sight, the recent deal to cut oil production among OPEC members appears to be an admission by Saudi Arabia that its strategy to maximize the flow of crude and suppress prices has been a failure. Does backing down now represent a long-term shift in outlook, or did an improving economic outlook allow some breathing room?