Thursday, January 22, 2015

Saudi Succession

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah b. Abd al-Aziz has died, and his half-brother Salman is now the Crown Prince.  The Washington Post explains why the situation is touchy:
The monarch, believed to be 90, was succeeded by his brother, Crown Prince Salman, according to state television. That put the region’s most important Sunni power and America’s closest Arab ally in the hands of a 79-year-old who is reportedly in poor health and suffering from dementia...
While observers in Riyadh widely predicted a smooth transition to Salman, his poor health means his rule could be relatively short. Should there be a power struggle to succeed him, it could leave a vacuum in the Middle East at a critical time. Saudi Arabia is a key member of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and a major ally of the government that just fell in neighboring Yemen...
In an apparent bid to preempt quarrels about succession — and also secure the line for his own favored branch of the family — Abdullah last year took the unprecedented step of anointing a deputy heir, Prince Muqrin, 71, his youngest brother...
(In choosing Muqrin's successor) the Saudi royal family would face a far more complicated puzzle about who would succeed Muqrin, but it would almost certainly be a prince from the next generation, the grandchildren of Abdulaziz. Hundreds of princes belong to that generation.
One possibility for Salman is simply passing over him due to ill health and having Muqrin assume the throne right away.  There is precedent for this in the Gulf, as in 2006 Kuwait's Emir Sa'ad was removed on similar grounds after a reign of only nine days. In Saudi Arabia, however, there is experience of a king who reigns while another rules, as Abdullah himself held the reigns of power for an incapacitated King Fahd for years.

As far as the succession issue, as I've said before, the interests of dynastic preservation would lead towards establish some sort of principle of succession to limit the number of candidates beyond simply Abd al-Aziz b. Saud's grandsons.  The most obvious such principle would be to, in practice if not in theory, ensure that succession passes to a son of one of the Sudairi Seven, the sons Abd al-Aziz b. Saud had with Hassa bt. Ahmad, chief of the Sudairi clan in the early 20th century.  However, neither Abdullah nor Muqrin belongs to that faction, and it may not be possible for them to push forward against the influence of those two.  Promoting Sudairi Seven interests, of course, could be a reason to keep the Sudairi Salman on the throne.

In the introduction to her textbook on Chinese history called The Open Empire, Valerie Hansen describes a dynasty as a convenient fiction that legitimizes the rule of behind-the-scenes factions.  The Saudi dynasty is no one's fig leaf, but there are factions within the family itself, especially among those with no realistic chance at the throne or an important ministry themselves.  These negotiations are going on behind the scenes more intensely right now than they have for some time, for only Salman's fragile health stands between the House of Saud and the need to decisively move on the generational succession decision they have avoided for years.



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