Political Earthquake Shakes Saudi Arabia

Today’s announcement placing Mohammed bin Nayef as Saudi Arabia’s heir to the monarchy’s throne sent shockwaves throughout the Kingdom and beyond. Such a decision, not necessarily expected, was inevitable and signals the ascendance of the next generation of Saudi leaders. The implications of this decision are far reaching and too nuanced to cover in a single post; however, King Salman has shown that he will be more than a placeholder between King Abdullah and the previous generation and that he will leave a lasting legacy, whatever history judges it to be.

Today’s reshuffling resulted in the retirement of a number of veteran leaders. The most visible of these changes deals with the retirement of former Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and Saud al-Faisal, the former foreign minister and – until today – the longest serving foreign minister in the world. The reasons for this change are not entirely clear to outside observers at the moment (as I do not consider myself to be an expert) and likely reflect both policy considerations as well as intra-family politicking. Such reasons will likely surface in DC and Gulf-based analyses in the coming days. The fact that al-Jazeera is not running a counter narrative suggests that there are limited leads to pursue at the moment that directly challenge the official story; such ideas, however, are speculation and will be proven or disproven in the coming days and weeks.

At the moment, the most visible effects deal with the promotion of a new generation of leaders. The position of Crown Prince is now occupied by Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Deputy Crown Prince (second in line for the throne) and nephew of King Salman. Additionally, Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s son, will assume the position of Deputy Crown Prince. Both leaders are part of the third generation of Saudi leaders, the grandsons of Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state. Such a shakeup highlights several important developments and signals the beginning of a new era/

First, the third generation of Saudi leaders is here and will not be going away; their influence – though not unlimited – cannot be denied and will only grow. Muqrin bin Abdulaziz was the last remaining potential successor from current King Salman’s generation still in line for the throne. Now that Muqrin is out of the running, the death of Salman will cement the ascension of the third generation of Saudi leaders, with little chance of a change of course. As I have written before, the new generation of Saudi leaders is better educated than previous generations and is far more cosmopolitan, having spent time living and studying around the world, many of them in the US. However, we should not equate such experiences with favoring for Western-style policies – outside, perhaps, of more liberal trade policies – and it would be dangerous to forecast about social or foreign policy solely on the basis of the next generation’s foreign work and study experience.

Second, Salman is willing to flex his power and despite concerns about his health, he will continue to shape the Saudi political scene in years to come. In addition to cementing the role of the next generation in the Kingdom’s leadership, the decision elevates Salman’s son, Mohammed, to second in line for the throne. It also ejects Muqrin, who had previously clashed with Mohammed bin Nayef regarding a response to domestic unrest. Whether this played a role in Salman’s decision remains to be seen, but regardless, Salman has proven willing and able to influence the process and substantially shakeup the line of succession in favor of his lineage. Similarly, the decision to relieve Saud bin Faisal and replace him with Adel al-Jubeir further isolates the elements of the Abdullah and Faisal factions of the royal family and entrenches the influence of the Sudairi clan, of which Salman, Mohammed bin Nayef, and Mohammed bin Salman are members.

As I wrote about previously, it is difficult to forecast about the policy decisions to be undertaken by the upcoming generations of Saudi leaders. Decisions regarding nominations for political office in the Kingdom reflect both merit and internal family dynamics and often deal more with internal concerns than external concerns. The only sure thing in the future of the next generation of Saudi leadership is their ascendance – the decisions they will inevitably undertake involve the weighing of threats, both internal and external, that we cannot predict today. While the next generation is better educated than previous generations, there is no reason to think that the Saudi royal family will relinquish any of the power that they have accumulated over the last (almost) century. The new leaders may rule with a greater eye on the international community, but we will likely see the same jockeying for position and politicking in the House of Saud for years to come.

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