Change and Succession in Saudi Arabia

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Nathaniel Kern, Matthew M. Reed

In the three weeks since Saudi Crown Prince Sultan passed away, many Western pundits have speculated about succession, given the advanced age of senior members of the family, and the uncertain prospect of a generational turnover. At stake are oil market stability, Saudi Arabia’s status as the West’s strategic partner in the region, and the many gains the Kingdom has made against al Qaeda over the past decade. However, when considered cumulatively, the deliberate moves made by King Abdullah in recent weeks suggest careful and prudent planning for the continuity of policy.

Although little commented upon, the succession order now in place is much more robust than the dicey uncertainty which prevailed over the past several years, when a very ill Crown Prince was nevertheless a heart-beat away from the throne.

Naif Now Crown Prince, Salman Named Defense Minister

On November 5, nine days after appointing Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz as Crown Prince, King Abdullah filled the other outstanding vacancy resulting from the death of Crown Prince Sultan on October 22. By appointing Prince Salman, 75, as the new Minister of Defense, King Abdullah has also placed Salman in the lead position to become Crown Prince when Naif becomes King, although the final decision will rest with the Allegiance Commission.

Salman became Governor of Riyadh Province more than five decades ago, overseeing the transformation of the capital from a once-walled fortress city in the Nejdi heartland into a well-planned, modern metropolis. Its population has grown from 200,000 in the mid-1960s to five million today, without succumbing to the blights of urban congestion and pollution. Over the years, Prince Salman’s reputation for being open-minded, hard-working, self-disciplined, and judicious has grown. He is well-liked and respected by the public and within the family. He takes over a Defense Ministry that must sharpen its focus during a critical period and enhance its reputation for integrity in the face of serious external threats.

Powers Disaggregated

With a series of rapid-fire royal decrees, King Abdullah also disaggregated the many powers which Sultan acquired during his tenure as Defense Minister from 1962 until 2011. The Ministry will no longer include civil aviation under its auspices and thus is renamed the Ministry of Defense rather than the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. Civil Aviation, and thus control over Saudia, the national airline, will go to a new body under the King. More than a dozen other responsibilities held by Sultan will be reshuffled, with the King and the Crown Prince taking these over. They include various powers, like control over the once-scandal-ridden strategic petroleum product storage program, as well as meteorology and environment, the economic offset program, wildlife, the Atomic and Renewable Energy program, and many Supreme Councils, including those for administrative reform and Islamic affairs. The new Crown Prince’s portfolio will thus expand to include economic and administrative affairs, as well as coordinating policy towards Yemen, where the Kingdom sees great risk in terrorism and instability.

Changes at the Interior Ministry

The King also appointed Naif’s eldest son, Saud bin Naif, as head of the Crown Prince’s Court. Although Saud will be granted various powers, he will exercise them on behalf of his father, rather than on his own authority. The job will also take Saud out of the Interior Ministry. In July 2011, Saud was appointed Assistant Minister for General, or Public, Affairs, having served as Ambassador to Spain since 2003. Naif’s son Mohammed, 52, remains Assistant Minister for Security Affairs where he has served since 1999. Mohammed bin Naif is widely credited for the success of the Ministry’s counter-terrorism program.

Crown Prince Naif, 78, will retain his duties as Interior Minister. When Fahd became Crown Prince in 1975, at the age of 53, he initially remained as Minister of Interior but elevated Prince Naif from Vice Minister to Minister of State for Internal Affairs and then, within the year, to become Minister of the Interior. However, Fahd as Crown Prince held significant executive powers because King Khalid had limited interest in administrative details. Currently, Prince Naif’s brother, Ahmed, 71, serves as Vice Minister. (In Saudi Arabia, the rank of Vice Minister, or Deputy Minister, is the number two job in the Ministry.)

Senior Princes Relieved

In a royal decree dated November 5, the King relieved Prince Abdul Rahman of his post as Vice Minister of Defense and appointed Sultan’s son Khalid, 62, to that position. Khalid rose to fame around 1990 during the Desert Shield/Desert Storm conflict, before being relieved in late 1991. He was appointed Assistant Minister in 2001 and has been credited with being the de facto leader within the Ministry during Sultan’s long absences for medical treatment.

Abdul Rahman, 83, is the eldest surviving member of the so-called Sudairi Seven — the full brothers of King Fahd and Crown Prince Sultan. During Sultan’s recent absence from the Kingdom, Abdul Rahman stepped up his activity at the Ministry. He has often been described as having grown more ornery with age. The relief of Abdul Rahman means that during the past year King Abdullah has now relieved three of his younger half-brothers from senior positions.

In November 2010, the King appointed his son, Mit’ib, 58, as his successor and Commander of the National Guard after accepting the resignation of his brother, Badr bin Abdul Aziz, 81, who had served as Deputy Commander since 1967. Also in November 2010, the King accepted the resignation of the Minister of Municipal Affairs, Prince Mit’ib bin Abdul Aziz, 83, who was replaced by his son, Mansur bin Mit’ib.

More on the Allegiance Commission

Abdullah is the fifth son of King Abdul Aziz to reign. Of the five successions since 1953, three were completely orderly. One, when Faisal succeeded Saud, was marked by a six-year period (1958-64) during which Saud was pushed aside, came back, and eventually was forced to abdicate. The lengthy incapacity of King Fahd (1995-2005) led to no such disorder, but was not as smooth as it could have been.

The King established the Allegiance Commission in October 2006 with hopes that it would guarantee smoother transitions in the future. He named its thirty-five members in December 2007. When he established the Commission, he decreed that its statutory procedures would apply to “future cases” and not to the then-reigning King and Crown Prince — Abdullah and Sultan. However, by assembling the Commission on October 27, 2011 the King also took the opportunity to swear in two new members before directing it to pledge allegiance to the new Crown Prince, Prince Naif.

If the King dies before Crown Prince Naif, who is eleven years younger, the Commission would be bound to pledge allegiance to Naif as King. Thereafter, Naif could nominate between one and three candidates to become his Crown Prince after consultations with the Commission. If the Commission fails to reach a consensus on a nominee of the King’s, it may nominate its own candidate for the King’s approval. In case the King does not approve the Commission’s choice, the Commission is to hold a vote, with the next Crown Prince chosen by a majority.

New Commission Members and Naif’s Replacement

The two new members of the Commission are Prince Abdullah Bin Faisal Bin Turki al-Awwal bin Abdul Aziz, who replaced his brother Turki following his death in March 2009, and Prince Bandar Bin Musa’id Bin Abdul Aziz, who also replaced a brother. The original 35 “seats” on the Commission were held by sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons of the founder of the Kingdom, King Abdul Aziz. Since one of the sons of Abdul Aziz, Fawwaz, died without children in 2008, the number of seats has been reduced to 34.

With Naif’s elevation to the rank of Crown Prince, the seat he held on the Commission is to be taken over by one of his sons, to be chosen by the King. The King’s son, Khalid bin Abdullah, holds a seat on the Commission, as does the late Crown Prince’s son, Khalid bin Sultan. (The late King Fahd’s son, Mohammed, holds a seat; as does the late King Khalid’s son, Faisal; the late King Faisal’s son, Khalid; and the late King Saud’s son Mohammed.) The most senior son does not necessarily hold the seat. Indeed, Crown Prince Naif has six older brothers on the Commission.

Commission Empowered in Case of Health Crisis

The Allegiance Commission can employ a complex procedure under which the Commission may find a King or Crown Prince unable to exercise his powers, either temporarily or permanently, for reasons of health. However, both the King and the late Crown Prince were not covered by these procedures, while Crown Prince Naif will be. If Sultan was covered by these rules during his extended illness, it would have been up to the Allegiance Commission to appoint a medical team to make the appropriate determination. During Sultan’s illness, the King had the absolute power to dismiss him and name a replacement, but he elected not to do so.

Had King Abdullah pre-deceased Sultan, it is unclear whether or not the Commission would have had the statutory authority to make a determination about his ability to exercise power as king. Crown Prince Abdullah was the effective ruler from 1995-2005 during the prolonged ill-health of King Fahd, but he lacked the full powers of a King. Thus, with Crown Prince Naif now covered by the Commission’s ability to intercede for reasons of incapacity, some of uncertainty in succession matters may be alleviated.


Foreign Reports
 is a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that writes and distributes timely intelligence reports on political developments in the Middle East relevant to oil markets. Oil companies, governments, and financial institutions rely on Foreign Reports for their insight and analysis on key issues affecting the world generally and the Middle East specifically. The firm was founded in 1956 and the current President is Nathaniel Kern.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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