Recent reports that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has been in poor health have fueled new questions about royal succession, an issue that has been looming over the Kingdom for years. Six kings have ruled Saudi Arabia since its creation in 1932, including its founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud. All of his successors have been his sons, including King Abdullah. By tradition, succession has been passed from brother to brother among the sons of al-Saud.
Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, 76, was named Crown Prince this year. He, too, is in frail health. King Abdullah’s remaining sons also have about 16 half-brothers that are still alive (down from an estimated 36), but the youngest of them is thought to already be in his sixties. Ultimately, the Saudi royal family must decide whether to continue tradition and select a Deputy Crown Prince from among King Abdullah’s remaining sons – or name a member of a younger generation. Even more challenging is the question which family line should ultimately inherit the Kingdom.
Senior reporter Cecily Hilleary spoke with two experts in Saudi political succession: Karen Elliott House, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future, and Simon Henderson, Baker Fellow, Director of the Gulf and Energy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the study, After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia.
“The problem,” says Henderson, “and it’s been getting worse, because of the nature of it — is that the kings have been becoming kings later in their lives and therefore they haven’t had the energy to properly serve as kings. Frankly, we’ve ended up with essentially some short-term kings.”
Karen Elliott House compares the monarchical succession in Saudi Arabia to that the Soviet Union saw in its party leadership changes in the 1980s:
“…when the [position of] General Secretary went from Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko in rapid succession. I think King Abdullah does understand that they need some energy and longevity in a leader, someone who can work an 8-hour day and with some sense of modern communications technology, [to use] the impact of the internet and social media on a population sixty percent of whom are under 20 years of age.”
However, as Henderson points out, the decision is not as easy as it sounds, nor is it predictable. “Indeed, the sensible way forward is to drop a generation,” he said. “But to tackle this potentially thorny problem… means excluding some people who are the residual sons of the founder of the Kingdom, Ibn Saud, and also deciding which line of the next generation should inherit the throne. Of course, the first person to inherit it might suggest it will follow that man’s line. That is guesswork at this stage; how it will actually proceed beyond that is a bit of a question.”
According to House, the selection of crown princes and kings in Saudi Arabia has always taken place in secret, according to unwritten tradition.
“The king and a small inner circle of powerful princes have met in secret to decide on a crown prince. Nobody is entirely sure how, and the known qualifications are that he be, in essence, by age, but also be the most competent to rule. So just being the eldest brother of this line of brothers who have been king since 1953 when their father died is not a guarantee that you become king. You must also be deemed by the family to be the most competent and qualified. They have skipped brothers many times.”
In 2006, recognizing the need for a more efficient selection process, King Abdullah set up the Allegiance Council, but it is not yet known how effective the Council will be – or even, says Henderson, whether it will survive, as Crown Prince Salman could choose to abolish it. “In fact, the Allegiance Council has yet, really, to operate, in the sense that it has taken any tough decisions,” Henderson said. “So far, both in the case of appointing Nayef as Crown Prince and then Salman as Crown Prince, it has merely rubber-stamped a decision which had already been made by King Abdullah.”
House says it is not unusual for a king to go without a crown prince for several years, and it is anyone’s guess how the Council will make its first tough decision.
“A lot of Saudis fear that the bargaining will result in someone who is very weak that they won’t be able to agree on a real leader, so they will pick the lowest common denominator, which obviously wouldn’t be good for the country because they have high unemployment, they have rising domestic energy consumption… so they have a lot of serious problems. It doesn’t mean they can’t overcome them.”
Henderson and Elliott House both agree that while there are several interesting contenders in both the older and younger generation of princes, one individual in particular stands out as a prince to watch: The new Minister of the Interior, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, son of the late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz.
Henderson, however, believes the selection will not come quickly.
“The rise to prominence of the next, the new ‘Number Three, at least this is my own definition, not the official definition, will take time,” he said. “And, of course, the problems in the Middle East and the problems in the world won’t stand still, so we will have concerns about the Iran nuclear [program]; we’ll have concerns about oil; we’ll have concerns about changes in the Arab world described as the ‘Arab Spring;’ we’ll have concerns about Shi’ites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and in neighboring Bahrain, which will all be bubbling – or occasionally bubbling – and be headaches even for the most experienced, most alert king.”
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.