The consecutive deaths of the two Saudi Crown Princes, Sultan and Nayef, in less than one year has fuelled discussions among Western and regional observers about the issue of succession and regime stability in Saudi Arabia. Without a doubt, the monarchy will face hard times if the al-Saud family is unable to agree on one of Ibn Saud’s grandsons when an alternation of generations at the state’s topmost position becomes inevitable. Considering the advanced age of the immediate candidates for succession, this moment is likely to arrive within the next decade.
Today, the Kingdom displays similar symptoms to the regimes most severely affected by the Arab Spring: youth unemployment, corruption, squandering of money by a small elite, nepotism and economic hardship. Given these circumstances, an open power struggle within the royal family could cause the ongoing protests in the Shiite Eastern Province to spillover into the rest of the Kingdom and lead to a successful revival of last year’s day of rage on March 11, 2011.
Much analysis on the succession debate assesses these possible dangers to Saudi rule or includes speculation about which, if any, of Ibn Saud’s grandsons is likely to be the heir to the current Crown Prince, Salman. The discussions are, however, lacking in context. In this regard, understanding the mechanisms and conventions that come into effect when the royal family chooses a new heir apparent, is important. Shifting the focus onto these intra-family proceedings will show that the al-Saud are better positioned for the inter-generational power transfer than is commonly expected.
The Importance of Succession
The regulation of succession is one of the central cruxes of authoritarian rule.[i] There is no other moment where splits in the ruling elite are as likely to occur. Should one particular elite segment feel excluded from power, it might join forces with oppositional actors in an attempt to regain its share of power. If suitable to its interests, this elite faction might even be willing to accept regime change.[ii]
These possibilities are no less true for the Saudi royal family. Far from a homogenous entity, the royal family is characterized by cleavages drawn from various alliances based on maternal and paternal lineages and differing policy attitudes.[iii]
To prevent power struggles, the Saudi king must try to forge a family consensus on important decisions and take the opinions of senior princes into consideration. Although it is difficult for the king to make decisions without the consent of his relatives, he is nevertheless considered primus inter pares – the first among equals.[iv] It is he who has the final say on the allocation of valuable government positions and dismissals. In cases where no clear family consensus exists, his word is decisive.
Consequently, the king could – in theory – give preference toward his own family branch in an attempt to monopolize power. Such behavior would, however, most probably lead to internal turmoil. Slighted members of the family might then search for allies outside of the ruling family, ultimately challenging the absolute rule of the al-Saud. For this reason, a possible candidate for the throne must be strong enough to negotiate a family agreement and at the same time be capable of making decisions when consensus cannot be forged.
In the recent past, however, successions within the royal family have not led to open disputes between family members. This outcome may be rooted in the family’s historical experiences, specifically with regard to two formative events.
First, at the end of the second Saudi Realm (1824-1887), the brothers Saud and Abdallah found themselves in a dispute over kingship. As a result, the Saudi throne changed hands seven times between the two. Because of this intra-family power struggle, the al-Saud family lost control over its affiliated tribes, ultimately empowering the rival clan of the al-Rashid, and was consequently forced into exile in Kuwait.[v]
The second incident occurred after the death of the state’s founder, Abdalaziz Ibn Saud. Without an institutionalized mode of succession at the time of Ibn Saud’s death, the throne passed to his eldest son, Saud. When he ascended to the throne, Saud tried to strip other senior family members of their powers in favor of his own sons. As a result, the royal family split into two major coalitions. In one group was King Saud, his sons, and a group of liberal princes. Opposing them was Ibn Saud’s second oldest son Faisal, the Sudayri Seven, an influential group within the House of Saud, and some other princes. At the time, this disunity was exploited by Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser, who supported anti-monarchical groups in the Kingdom.
The senior princes quickly realized that a division within the family could undermine their rule.[vi] While Nasser’s efforts to bring instability to the monarchy did not undercut the al-Saud’s rule, defining a clear succession procedure became necessary.
Despite this urgency, it took several decades and two significant changes to the modus operandi until the royal family established an institutionalized mode of succession. The balance of power between different branches of the family then became an integral part of the succession procedure.
The Informal Mode of Succession
Saud’s inability to govern eventually led to his forced abdication. His half brother Faisal then ascended to the throne. Reigning from 1964 to 1975, Faisal abstained from appointing one of his sons as crown prince, and instead chose his half brothers Khalid, as Deputy Prime Minister and Crown Prince, and Fahd, as Second Deputy Prime Minister. The appointment of the Second Deputy was widely understood to be the king’s recommended crown prince-to-be.
At the time, Western observers were unsure whether the royal family would regard Faisal’s appointments as binding after his death. However, after the passing of King Faisal, the al-Saud followed his recommendations and pledged allegiance to Crown Prince Khalid. Fahd, the Second Deputy Prime Minister, then became the new Crown Prince.[vii] Though the question of succession was resolved informally, problems revolving around the transfer of power could, in this manner, be solved long before they became urgent.
By selecting his half brothers, Khalid and Fahd, King Faisal aimed to accommodate important family factions. Instead of choosing a candidate from the next generation, his successor, Prince Khalid, followed Faisal’s example and continued appointing his half brothers.[viii]
Abstaining from naming one’s own sons or full brothers as crown prince has not always satisfied demands for formal political power by different currents and individuals within the al-Saud family. However, due to the royal family’s dominant role in Saudi Arabia’s political system, its members can be and have been compensated with positions in the government. As such, the king must not only consider all opinions within the family in appointing a crown prince, but also promote family unity by justly allocating government positions.[ix]
From the time of King Faisal, the necessity of balancing power and the principle of seniority has served as the basis for appointing an heir. In five cases, however, exceptions were made to this rule, as the royal family doubted the abilities of the senior princes to govern the Kingdom and uphold the rule of the al-Saud. The most prominent example in this regard was Prince Muhammad, who – according to rumors – had a hot-blooded character and excessive drinking habits.
The Basic Law of Government: New Competitors Enter the Scene
Fahd inherited the throne from Khalid in 1982. Eight years later, he faced the most severe crisis in the Kingdom’s young history. Both the Gulf War and the deployment of thousands of Western soldiers to Saudi soil became a catalyst for the growth of a domestic opposition movement. In response to pressures for reform, King Fahd presented the long promised Basic Law of Governance in 1992.
The constitution-like document embodied the political status quo in Saudi Arabia. It also stipulated that only male descendants of Ibn Saud would be eligible to become king and that the king would be responsible for appointing his crown prince. According to the document, the pool of potential candidates was not limited to the sons of the Kingdom’s founder, but rather
[t]he dynasty right shall be confined to the sons of the founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman Al Faisal Al Saud and the sons of sons. The most eligible among them shall be recognized as king, to rule in accordance with the Holy Qur’an and the prophet’s Sunnah. (Article 5b)
This declaration was reformist in several ways. First, it provided a legal framework for the selection of the crown prince. Article 5c explicitly gave the king the exclusive right to choose and relieve his heir apparent. Second, it challenged the principal of seniority, making competence a determinative criterion for selecting future leaders. Third, it brought inter-generational power transfers onto the agenda.[x]
Some senior princes, especially Abdallah, the second eldest living son, feared that the legality of inter-generational power transfers could prevent their ascension to the throne. Consequently, Fahd stuck to the old established ways and named Abdallah crown prince, appointing his full brother Sultan, Second Deputy.