by Madawi Al-Rasheed
This article is part of a 4-part series assessing the prospects for new directions in Saudi foreign policy under King Salman and his son.
On 23 January 2015, the old King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz Al-Saud (b. 1924) passed away. Within hours his half-brother Crown Prince Salman (b. 1935) became king and Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin (b. 1945) was promoted to crown prince. Interior Minister Muhammad ibn Nayef (b. 1959) became deputy crown prince. Such arrangements confirmed that King Salman was respecting his deceased brother’s succession plan. Before his death, King ‘Abdullah had made it clear to other senior princes that the sequence of succession should remain as he had stipulated and confirmed in his royal orders. Saudis and outside observers breathed a sigh of relief over the swift and smooth succession. Many Saudis considered that the succession reflected unity within the royal family. The smooth transfer of power was believed to silence those outside observers and dissidents who had long speculated about rivalries among senior royals.
However, King Salman felt free to alter this succession plan within two months of becoming king. In April 2015 he sacked his younger brother Crown Prince Muqrin and promoted his nephew, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Nayef, to crown prince. He went further when he appointed his youngest son Muhammad (b. 1985) to the position of deputy crown prince. Young prince Muhammad became second deputy prime minister, minister of defence, chief of the royal court and chair of the Council of Economic Development Affairs. No other prince has ever held as many key positions at such a young age as Muhammad ibn Salman. Even at the height of creating a centralised state, King Faysal (d. 1975) did not hold so many responsibilities. Since these appointments, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad has been assumed to be the key power behind the throne. King Salman is ‘possibly the last member of the Al-Saud who will be able to enjoy the unquestioned authority and prestige to impose his will irrespective of family consensus’.
On 21 June 2017, King Salman issued an expected royal decree, sacking Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Nayef and promoting his young son Muhammad as the designated heir. During the lifespan of the third Saudi state (1932–), such a move has happened only once before, in 1933, when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud appointed his own son Saud as crown prince and excluded all his brothers. Salman’s bold decision may not be the last episode in these royal shuffles. It remains to be seen whether King Salman will abdicate and allow himself to see his beloved son settle into his new role as king. Given the frequency of royal decrees that relate to succession since Salman became king, his abdication would not be a surprise given his age – he is over eighty years old.
These bold succession decisions, dubbed by foreign observers a ‘palace coup’ and a ‘quiet revolution’, ignited new rumours and speculations about royal intrigue. These are further strengthened by the fact that Muhammad ibn Nayef, crown prince until June 2017, has not yet produced a male heir, curtailing the possibility that he could have appointed a son of his own at the expense of his cousin should he had been allowed to stay in power and become king. Furthermore, reports about ibn Nayef’s poor health had already been circulating, especially among foreign intelligence observers in Washington. As the prince was totally sidelined in Salman’s bold royal reshuffle, reports abounded that he was being held under house arrest in Jeddah immediately after being sacked, though this remains unconfirmed.
The young prince Muhammad ibn Salman is preparing to inherit the throne, provided that no further succession changes take place during the king’s lifetime. But in Saudi Arabia nothing can be taken for granted or expected to follow a rational plan. King Salman’s new appointments in June 2017 are destined to generate more ambiguity and speculation after he dies, especially as concerns Saudi Arabia’s international relations. New directions in foreign policy with the US, Europe and the region coincided with the promotion of his own son immediately after Salman became king in 2015.
Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the LSE Middle East Centre. In January 2017, she returned to the MEC from a sabbatical year at the Middle East Institute, the National University of Singapore. Previously, she was Research Fellow at the Open Society Foundation. She tweets at @MadawiDr.
Other articles in this series:
- Intro – King Salman and His Son: Winning the US, Losing the Rest
- Part 2 – Muhammad ibn Salman and Trump: A Successful Momentary Symbiosis
- Part 3 – Salman’s Son and Europe: Secondary Partnerships
- Part 4 – Losing the Regional Struggle: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and the Elephant in the Room