RIYADH – By rapidly appointing two heirs, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has pressed pause on “succession Sudoku”, as one leading local journalist calls speculation over whose star is rising and whose waning in the large and secretive Al Saud ruling family.
The choice of 69-year-old Muqrin for crown prince and 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef for deputy crown prince resolved the most important dilemma in the dynasty’s recent history – how to jump from sons of its founder, King Abdulaziz, to his grandsons.
Yet while much attention has focused on the naming of Muqrin and bin Nayef, less noticed moves have indicated broader changes in the contours of how the Al Saud manage their power and which young princes might rule the world’s top oil exporter and key Western ally in future.
After decades during which top jobs were held by the same handful of people, these appointments appear to set in place a new ruling team to dominate Saudi politics at a time of unprecedented regional turmoil and long-term challenges.
The most important change appears to be the creation of two new super-committees that give Mohammed bin Nayef and the king’s own son Mohammed bin Salman extensive control over most aspects of Saudi policy making.
Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also Interior Minister, now heads a committee on politics and security that will develop Saudi strategy on how to tackle Iran, Islamic State, wars in Iraq and Syria, the crisis in Yemen and treatment of domestic dissidents.
Mohammed bin Salman, who at age 35 has also been named Defence Minister and head of the Royal Court, heads a committee on economic and development policy that makes his voice the most important on big long term issues confronting the kingdom.
“Aside from those who are close to the prince, people don’t know that much about Mohammed bin Salman, but he is coming very strong. He is in effect the prime minister because he has so much power in his hands,” said Saudi political scientist Khaled al-Dakhil.
To some Western analysts, Salman’s moves also appeared to stress a pendulum swing to the so-called Sudairi block of the Al Saud, the seven brothers born to Abdulaziz by his favourite wife, from a group of princes long led by the late Abdullah.
The new king is one of those brothers, and Mohammed bin Nayef is the son of another. By concentrating power in the hands of himself, his own son, and the son of a Sudairi brother, Salman was seen by some as advancing his branch of the family.
That analysis appeared to be bolstered by the fact that unlike his predecessors, Crown Prince Muqrin, seen as loyal to Abdullah, was not given a large ministerial role of his own to cement an independent powerbase before eventually becoming king.
Salman’s rapid dismissal of two of Abdullah’s sons as governors of Riyadh and Mecca, two of the three most important Saudi provinces, was seen in the same way.
However, decades on from their 1980s heyday, it is far from clear that the Sudairis still constitute a coherent faction, say informed Saudis and diplomats.
The blood tie that set seven full brothers apart from their dozens of half siblings are less relevant between cousins who are widely spread out in age and who lack the bonds their fathers and uncles forged during a 1960s family power struggle.
Saudi analysts say alliances and rivalries among the leading Al Saud now have more to do with their own personal histories.
TWO PRINCE MOHAMMEDS
Questions over power blocs in the Al Saud are all too relevant in a kingdom where succession does not pass directly from father to eldest son, but by an idiosyncratic process of royal decree, seniority, experience and family acquiescence.
Until now, the process has been fairly smooth, with power passing down a line of brothers, skipping those who lacked political experience or wider family support.
But after Muqrin, the youngest of those brothers, there is no clear mechanism to determine how the succession should move between hundreds of cousins, or even whether a generation has to be exhausted before power is passed to their sons and nephews.
Salman’s appointment of his son to top jobs, excluding two other prominent sons whose roles have been mostly unchanged, may have been aimed at positioning Prince Mohammed as the most logical successor to his namesake, the deputy crown prince.
The new royal court chief is not simply enjoying an extended apprenticeship to power, but is already a central figure. Many of the technocratic young ministers appointed by Salman this month worked for Prince Mohammed’s own charity, another sign of his influence in government.
However, in a family that still puts a lot of emphasis on age and generational seniority, Prince Mohammed will have to prove himself not only as a competent administrator, but as a skilled and tactful player of palace politics.
Two earlier kingdoms established by the Al Saud collapsed in the 18th and 19th centuries because of internal power struggles. Avoiding that fate, in a country where per capita oil income is starting to dwindle, is the challenge that awaits the two Prince Mohammeds.