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Feature Article
2017-07-16

Succession Shock - The Trump Effect?

The King has replaced Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif with his own son, Muhammad, the deputy crown prince and defense minister, in a move which, though not entirely unexpected, represents a seismic shift in the succession dynamic. Now, the position of deputy crown prince remains vacant - will Salman abdicate in favor of his son, and who will be next in line?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

According to a royal decree, Muhammad bin Salman, the king's favored son, was named crown prince, heir to the throne, and deputy prime minister, all while maintaining his role as Defense Minister. Already in charge of a vast portfolio as chief of the Royal Court and head of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Muhammad will now report only to the king. By the same decree, King Salman dismissed his nephew, Muhammad bin Nayif, further relieving him of his duties as Interior Minister (removing also his deputy and ally, Abd al-Rahman al-Rubayan from office), and appointing the little-known Abd al-Aziz bin Saud bin Nayif as the new Minister of Interior. Muhammad bin Nayif (MbN) had already been stripped of his powers to oversee criminal investigations when a new public prosecution office, intended to function directly under the king's authority, was created. The move was widely seen as presaging his recent dismissal.

MbN's replacement is all the more surprising given the lack of experience and relative qualification of his successor. MbN had been highly regarded and was considered extremely competent in the role, responsible for having virtually eliminated al-Qa'ida from the kingdom and now managing a frighteningly-efficient intelligence network. In addition, he had enjoyed good relations with his foreign counterparts, a point generally thought to weigh in his favor with regard to succession. Indeed, it was only in 2015 that the king had appointed MbN, then deputy crown prince, as his heir (vali al-ahd) after he removed Muqrin, a half-brother and one of the few surviving sons of the kingdom's founder Ibn Saud. The move was significant since it guaranteed a place for the so-called third-generation, avoiding a period of extended gerontocracy, which would potentially have ensued if each of the sons of the founder had insisted on taking their turn. Now, however, an even more severe shock to the system has occurred.

The Allegiance Commission, tasked with shepherding succession affairs, reportedly confirmed the choice of Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) as crown prince, by a margin of 31 to 3. The failure to find unanimity highlights the ongoing concerns some members of the royal family still harbor over MbS, and indeed, the push by Salman to empower members of his own family, seemingly at the expense of the larger Al Saud enterprise. In April, he appointed two other of his sons to important roles - Abd al-Aziz as State Minister for Energy Affairs, and Khalid, as Ambassador to the United States, a position for which he is uniquely unqualified. Other sons also occupy high office - Faysal as Governor of Madinah, and Sultan as head of Tourism. It has long been feared that one or other of the kings would try to install their own progeny in power, ensuring the perpetuation of their own family line, but thus far the many dispersed power centers among the Al Saud have discouraged that. There would have been little chance of a king such as Fahd promoting the candidacy of his son Muhammad, for example, or Abdallah that of son Mit'ab, so long as powerful brothers were around to stand in opposition to their designs. With the passage of time, however, the overlapping, competing power centers of old no longer exist. Defense resides firmly under MbS (and formerly Salman), while Interior, once a potential counterweight to overweening ambition, has been brought under Salman as well. The National Guard, alone, rests beyond Salman's orbit. Controlled by Mit'ab bin Abdallah, who is not known to harbor any greater personal ambitions, the Guard is charged with ensuring the safety of the royal family from internal threats. Whatever his own views on the matter (or secret arrangements of support in return for the promise of eventual promotion to crown prince), any suspect moves on Mit'ab's part would quickly result in his dismissal (providing the Guard is not simply about to be absorbed into Defense, as is rumored).

Related articles: The End of Consensus: Uncharted Terrain?
Hazards Ahead For Muhammad bin Salman: Trump To The Rescue?
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Past Feature Articles
The End of Consensus: Uncharted Terrain?

The rapid promotion of King Salman's son, Muhammad, highlights a fundamental contrast between the king and his predecessor. In the matter of succession, owing to his position within the royal family and a different outlook resulting from that advantage, Salman can afford to downplay the role of consensus and effect a radical break from the past.

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.

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.

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