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King Salman consolidates the Al-Sudayri “palace coup” by Dr Stig Stenslie, Assistant deputy general and head of the Asia Division of the Norwegian Defence Staff. Reprinted by special permission of NOREF
On April 29th 2015 the official Saudi Press Agency announced a royal decree stating that the king’s half-brother, Muqrin, had been replaced as the new heir apparent by Muhammad bin Nayif, the king’s nephew and interior minister. At the same time Muhammad bin Salman, son of King Salman, was appointed deputy crown prince, while Foreign Minister Prince Sa‘ud al-Faysal was replaced by Adil al-Jubayr, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. King Salman’s reshuffling will arguably not bring more stability to Saudi Arabia, but rather increase the long-term risk of political instability. It underpins the notion that the Al-Sudayri clan of the royal family has carried out a “palace coup”. The survival of a dynastic regime like the Al-Sa‘ud depends on unity within the elite. Because of Salman’s reshuffling of key positions the Sudayris are now on their own at the helm of the kingdom. The new king’s ultimate goal seems to be to consolidate the succession within his branch of the family and for his favourite son. Salman’s recent appoint-ments will probably trigger considerable dissatisfaction within the royal family, and nurture future rivalry and potential conflicts among the various family factions. In particular, the appointment of Muhammad bin Salman is likely to be a source of discord.
On April 29th 2015 the official Saudi Press Agency announced a royal decree stating that the king’s half brother, Muqrin, had been replaced as the new heir apparent by Muhammad bin Nayif, the king’s nephew and interior minister. Salman relieved Crown Prince Muqrin of his post reportedly “upon his own request”. This is the first time that a grandson of the founder of the modern kingdom, King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (Ibn Sa‘ud) rather than a son has been appointed crown prince, marking a generational change at the top of the ruling house. At the same time Muhammad bin Salman, King Salman’s son, was appointed deputy crown prince, while Foreign Minister Prince Sa‘ud al-Faysal, who had held this important ministerial post since 1975, was replaced by Adil al-Jubayr, who is not a member of the royal family, but has served as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
King Salman’s reshuffling of top posts might increase the long-term risk of political instability in Saudi Arabia. It underpins the notion that the Al-Sudayri clan of the royal family has carried out a “palace coup”. Although none of the members of the family has aired any discontent publicly, with the exception of a single tweet by the notorious loose cannon Prince Talal, it is highly likely that King Salman’s recent moves have created considerable tension within the royal family. The reshuffling alters the balance between the various family fractions. Historically, feuding within the royal family has weakened its grip on power, and it was familial infighting that caused the second Saudi state’s collapse in the late 1800s.
It is not surprising that Muqrin was deposed as crown prince – given that he has a weak personal power base and that his mother was a concubine of Yemeni descent. The need for King ‘Abd Allah to explicitly stipulate in the decree appointing Muqrin that the decision could not be altered or changed in the future by any party clearly indicates that the late king was aware that the appointment of his half-brother would be met with resistance from within the family. That said, Salman’s prompt decision to sideline Muqrin challenges established norms within the royal house: it is neither common that a new king sets aside the heir apparent appointed by his predecessor nor that he overrules a royal decree issued by the late king. Neither did it come as a surprise that Muhammad bin Nayif was promoted to crown prince, although his appointment as deputy crown prince in January was controversial within the royal family. He is one of the seniors among Ibn Sa‘ud’s grandsons and has a reputation as a skilled leader.
However, what came as a surprise was the appointment of the young wunderprince Muhammad bin Salman as deputy NOREF Expert Analysis – May 2015 crown prince. The prince – whose age seems to be a well-protected state secret, but lies somewhere between 27 and 34 years – has few merits. Through the appointment, Salman violates a number of key royal norms: all previous kings have promoted their own sons in terms of power and wealth, but within reasonable limits. In 1964 King Sa‘ud was deposed by his own brothers partly because he sought to amass power in the hands of himself and his sons at the expense of other powerful members of the royal family. Age, experience and kingly qualities have always been the basis for the choice of a successor to the throne. According to the “Basic Law”, which is the closest Saudi Arabia comes to a constitution, each of Ibn Sa‘ud’s grandsons has the right to be king, and they number around 200. By appointing his own son Salman has bypassed numerous other royals who are both older and far more experienced.
After Salman became king ‘Abd Allah’s family branch and the former king’s allies have lost political influence. Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the former head of the royal court, was the first one to be deposed. Two sons of ‘Abd Allah, who were deposed as governors of the key provinces of Riyadh and Mecca, followed him. Currently Mitab bin ‘Abd Allah, who is minister and commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, is the only one among the late king’s sons who has retained an important position, and it will not come as a huge surprise if he too has his political wings clipped. Muqrin, the now-deposed crown prince, was also among the late king’s closest aides.
One should not read too much into the replacement of Sa‘ud al-Faysal, who was first appointed in 1975, making him the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, and who has struggled with health problems. Faysal “asked to be relieved of his duties due to his health conditions”, said the royal decree, which may well be correct. However, it is known that there was disagreement between Faysal and the younger princes Muhammad bin Nayif and Muhammad bin Salman over the decision to bomb the Huthi rebels in Yemen, with Faysal arguing for a diplomatic rather than a military approach. Salman’s tough and militaristic foreign policy – known as the “Salman Doctrine” – can be seen in light of his consolidation of power. The decision to bomb the Huthis was arguable partly driven by the king’s desire to consolidate the position of Muhammad bin Salman, who, besides being deputy crown prince, is the world’s youngest minister of defence. Throughout the military campaign Saudi media loyal to the king have painted a picture of the young prince as a decisive military commander.
In Saudi Arabia rumours are saying that Prince ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Salman, the fourth son of King Salman, could soon replace the current oil minister, 79-year-old technocrat ‘Ali al-Na‘imi. If this happens, the prince, who was promoted from assistant oil minister to deputy oil minister earlier this year, would be the first member of the royal family to run this important ministry – another move that arguably would strengthen the king’s line. Former kings have appointed non-royals to this ministerial post to avoid creating the notion that one family branch controls the country’s main source of income and the source of the royal family’s wealth.
The survival of a dynastic regime like the Al-Sa‘ud depends on unity within the elite. King Salman and former king ‘Abd Allah were known for having a rather bad relationship on a personal level. Because of Salman’s reshuffling of key positions the Sudayris are now on their own at the helm of the kingdom. The new king’s ultimate goal seems to be to consolidate the succession within his branch of the family and for his favourite son. Salman’s recent moves to enhance the power of his own line will probably trigger considerable dissatisfaction within the royal family, and nurture future rivalry and potential conflicts among the various family factions. In particular, the appointment of Muhammad bin Salman is likely to be a source of discord, and he will find it very difficult to become a respected and unifying figure within the family. Time will show how long it will take for a backlash to occur, which might be when the king and his Sudayri companions are facing such a dire situation that they will need the support of the rest of the Al-Sa‘ud.
The royal decree that announced the promotion of Muhammad bin Salman underlines the young prince’s qualifications, the needs of the state and the support of the majority of the members of the Allegiance Council, in addition to the granting of a month’s extra pay to all military and civilian security personnel. The fact that these details are included probably reflects some anticipation by King Salman that the appointment might be met with scepticism both within and outside the royal elite. In February and March there was a drop of as much as $36 billion dollars in the kingdom’s net foreign currency reserves, equivalent to around 5% of the total, the largest recorded two-month decline ever, which was partly due to the extra pay. Besides “buying the support” of the people, the king has sought backing from conservative elements within the clergy – who were sidelined by late king ‘Abd Allah – by appointing conservative clerics to important positions and reinvigorating his predecessor’s efforts to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Finally, it is ironic that Salman is the one making these controversial appointments, which eventually might upset the stability of Saudi Arabia. For five decades – when he was governor of Riyadh Province – Salman played an important role in terms of maintaining unity within the royal family; it was often him the royals turned to when they needed to resolve family conflicts or deal with other family matters.
Dr Stig Stenslie is assistant deputy general and head of the Asia Division of the Norwegian Defence Staff. He has held visiting fellowships at, among others, the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies in Oslo, the National University in Singapore and Columbia University in New York. He holds a doctorate on royal family politics in Saudi Arabia from the University of Oslo. He is the author of several publications on the contemporary Middle East and China, the most recent being, with Marte Kjær Galtung, 49 Myths about China (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), Regime Stability in Saudi Arabia: The Challenge of Succession (Routledge, 2011) and, with Kjetil Selvik, Stability and Change in the Modern Middle East (IB Tauris, 2011).
© Dr Stig Stenslie