Experts see family competition behind Saudi king succession struggle

Expert sees Salman’s son and new defense minister, who has headed the crown prince’s court, as the key player to watch.

The body of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is carried during his funeral at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque in Riyadh (photo credit: REUTERS)
The body of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is carried during his funeral at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque in Riyadh
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A report on the Saudi succession exposes the family struggle going on behind the scenes and how newly appointed King Salman has quickly maneuvered to fill top posts with close kin.
The report published this past week by Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on the modern Middle East at Bar- Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, says the accession of King Salman has been smooth so far as “Saudi royals know that a succession struggle will only hurt them.”
Teitelbaum called the succession the “return of the ‘Sudayri Seven,’” after the powerful royal faction.
“The founding monarch [of Saudi Arabia] Abd al-Aziz had dozens of sons. These formed into tribe-like factions based on a shared mother,” he explained. “The most important faction to emerge was that of the seven sons of Hasa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri. This faction produced two kings, King Fahd (d. 2005) and the new King Salman, as well as the long-serving interior minister, Prince Nayif (d. 2012) and the even longer serving defense minister Prince Sultan (d. 2011).”
“This faction of full brothers operates as a group against contenders, but can be at odds internally when they vie for positions,” he said in the Begin-Sadat Center report.
Simon Henderson, the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post that he predicts the transition is less likely to be smooth despite the House of Saud’s efforts to give this impression.
Henderson sees Salman’s son and the new defense minister and who has headed the crown prince’s court, as the key player to watch.
“Only in his 30s, Muhammad bin Salman has yet to demonstrate a clear skill set, but his ambition is gigantic,” wrote Henderson in an article this past week in The Atlantic monthly.
Henderson told the Post last week that Muhammad is ruthless and he “orchestrated the removal of four deputy defense ministers in the space of just over a year.”
He correctly anticipated that “we will see a reshuffle within a few weeks.”
King Salman ordered a lavish payout to all state employees on Thursday and reshuffled some top government jobs while keeping in place the oil, foreign, finance, defense and interior ministers.
The changes included the removal of two of the late king’s sons from big jobs, making Faisal bin Bandar Riyadh governor instead of Turki bin Abdullah and reinstating Khaled al-Faisal as Mecca governor less than two years after he was replaced by Mishaal bin Abdullah.
Looking at the big picture, Henderson remarked on the importance of the oil factor and the recent large drop in prices.
Oil money is how the Saudis deal with foreign policy and domestic problems and with less money its options are more limited, he said.
Abdullah named his half-brother Prince Salman, 13 years his junior, heir apparent in June 2012 after the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz. Last year he appointed Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as deputy crown prince, giving some assurance on the kingdom’s longterm succession process.
Teitelbaum mentioned that Salman is old and in poor health and Muqrin “has no sons who have the exposure, prestige and experience to make a run for a top post.”
“Therefore, when Salman assumed the throne he did not disappoint his fellow Sudayris. He removed Abdullah’s allies and sons from important positions and put the Sudayris back up top,” he said. “Most importantly, he moved Sudayri Prince Muhammad bin Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz to the position of deputy crown prince, thus making an end run-around Muqrin and assuring Sudayri primacy for many years, as the grandsons of founder King Abd al-Aziz take power.”
“Indeed, the Sudayris may be hoping that they can dominate Muqrin just as they dominated the weak King Khalid, who succeeded King Faysal,” argued Teitelbaum.
Eran Segal, a researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told the Post that it was not just the return of the Sudayris, but it “seems more like a coup.”
“The amount of decisions made just hours after Abdullah’s death are telling,” he said, adding that it crossed his mind that Muhammad bin Nayif could have been worrying that Salman wouldn’t make it to the swearing in ceremony.
Muqrin was left out of a “real” job so it is possible he may have a stumbling blocks when his turn comes to rule.
Reuters contributed to this report.