Saudi Arabia is supposed to be facing a generational transition crisis. It is a country with an octogenarian leadership that is supposed to be kicking the succession can down the road as far as possible, without ever addressing the problem. Yet the truth is that the Kingdom’s transition is well underway. The country’s transition to a next generation of leadership, rather than just beginning, is in many ways nearing completion.
Tracing the changes begins with the death of King Abdullah’s half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, and the changes that it started in the massive Saudi security establishment. Saudi security is managed by a trio of three organizations – the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, and the National Guard. They are each run by a different branch of the royal family. All three function as both guarantors of security, and also form a large part of Saudi Arabia’s social safety net. National Guard hospitals are one of the key ways Saudis have access to affordable healthcare for example, and all three employ well over a hundred thousand Saudis each.
The Ministry of Defense was run by Crown Prince Sultan for over forty years until his death in October 2011. The Ministry has a budget today of over $40 billion – more than Germany, South Korea, or Australia – and is also rumored to be the country’s largest landowner. Prince Sultan’s death brought about a few changes, including speeding up the privatization and reform of the country’s woefully inadequate aerospace network, and solidified the role of his son Prince Khalid bin Sultan as the Deputy Minister of Defense. Prince Salman, the Crown Prince’s brother and Governor of Riyadh, became the Minister of Defense.
After Prince Sultan, Prince Naif, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Interior for over 35 years, became Crown Prince. Yet Crown Prince Naif then passed away in June 2012. His successor as Crown Prince, now Minister of Defense Prince Salman, is also in his late seventies and widely rumored to be in very poor health. At the Ministry of Interior, control first passed to Prince Naif’s brother Prince Ahmed. Yet months later, Prince Ahmed resigned from his post, and Prince Mohammed, Prince Naif’s son, became the Minister of Interior. It thus became the first of the key Royal-Family-Controlled (Interior, Defense, National Guard, Foreign Affairs) Ministries to fully pass into the hands of the next generation. Most other Ministries – such as Finance or Oil – are intentionally kept out of the hands of Royal Family members and run by professional civil servants.
The National Guard meanwhile, has King Abdullah as its putative head, although his son, Prince Mutaib, is the Commander and thus in charge. The Ministry of Defense is now run by Crown Prince Sultan’s son, Khalid bin Sultan, even though Crown Prince Salman retains the formal title.
In essence, the three key security Ministries in the country are all already transitioned to the next generation. They are run, and will likely remain run for the foreseeable future, by their respective branches of the Royal Family.
However, the final coup de grace of King Abdullah’s stealth transition is solidifying his own succession. Crown Prince Salman’s health and age leave many questioning whether he will ever be King. However, King Abdullah surprised many by appointing Prince Muqrin, his youngest half-brother, as Second Deputy Premier.
Prince Muqrin thus inherits a position typically seen as a stepping stone to Crown Prince, putting him clearly in line for the throne. Yet the move was a surprise since it directly cuts off many of Prince Muqrin’s older brothers, many of whom were expected to have eyes on the throne. In addition, Prince Muqrin’s mother is Yemeni, which many had expected would rule him out for succession. Prince Muqrin however is very highly regarded among the Saudi populace, and seen as a liberal voice in the country.
The past few months have thus seen a set of moves that lay out a far clearer idea about how the Kingdom’s succession will play out. The key Ministries controlled by the Royal Family are all now run by the next generation, whether in title or simply by reality. And by elevating Prince Muqrin, King Abdullah has laid out how the succession process will now look. Prince Muqrin will be in charge of managing transition to the next generation after King Abdullah, whether by becoming King himself and appointing a next-generation Crown Prince, or by working behind the scenes to install a Crown Prince and King from the next generation without taking on either role himself.
In essence, the pieces of Saudi Arabia’s transition to the next generation are already in place. The gatekeeper is in position, and the relevant Ministries are transitioned. The only question left is which nephew gets elevated. Far from being rocky however, the transition will likely be scripted and smooth.