More than three quarters of a century after the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, when founding father king Abdel-Aziz Bin Saud set the law of succession such that it went horizontally from brother to brother, the laws of biology have intervened.
The first generation of heirs is now nearing its end, necessitating a first in the kingdom's history with the appointment, amidst great fanfare, of prince Muqrin Bin Abdel Aziz as deputy crown prince.
The appointment has been made as a precautionary measure in view of the delicate health of both the reigning monarch, king Abdullah (90), and his brother, crown prince Salman (77). Although there is a full 13 years difference between the two, their health narrows that gap.
Should he inherit the throne, prince Muqrin would be the last surviving brother of the 35 sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, five of whom have inherited the throne during the six decades since his death in 1953.
However, if his appointment solves the immediate problem of succession should the positions of both monarch and crown prince fall vacant, questions still arise over the future of the succession as it moves down a generation in the royal house, especially now that tradition has been broken by bypassing Salman's prerogative to choose his own heir when he comes to power.
Saudi scholar Saleh al-Ghamedi told the Weekly that the appointment of a “deputy crown prince” set a precedent as a way of “supporting the transition of power to the fourth generation of the founder's grandsons, now that none of his sons remain who are qualified to rule due to old age or illness.”
Considerable speculation had hovered around prince Nayif bin Abdel-Aziz in western circles in view of the fact that he is one of Ibn Saud's sons with Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, making him one of the “Sudairi Seven,” the name used for the powerful alliance of seven full brothers within the House of Saud.
He is regarded as a likely candidate from the next generation on the grounds that all the brothers that have ruled so far were born to Saudi mothers and to the powerful Sudairi clan. Prince Muqrin's mother, on the other hand, is Baraka al-Yemeniya, of Yemeni origin, and this maternal line had been considered to be a factor curtailing his prospects of succession.
In Al-Ghamdi's opinion, such reasoning reflects the cultural misperceptions of the West. “The issue here is subject to Arab and Islamic culture and the cultural specificity of the kingdom. The founding monarch married more than four wives, which is not forbidden by Islam and is customary as a means of unifying the tribes.”
“Marriages in the Arabian Peninsula have historically been a way of maintaining tribal order. Therefore, this matter [the maternal line] should not be seen as a problem. Prince Muqrin has great support from his brothers and enjoys great popular support. In addition, his appointment is the will of king Abdullah, which carries weight in the Allegiance Council.”
The Council is the body responsible for determining the future succession to the Saudi throne.
The decree is not surprising in terms of its underlying rationale, and other precautionary measures have been taken in order to avert a succession crisis in the kingdom. In October 2006, king Abdullah created the Hay'at al-Bay'ah, or Allegiance Council, which is made up of the sons of the first king (or his grandsons in certain cases) and two members appointed by the reigning king, one of whom is one of his sons and the other is a son of the crown prince.
Upon the death of the reigning monarch, the Council is empowered to designate the crown prince as king and initiate allegiance ceremonies. Under the Allegiance Council Law, after his investiture the king nominates up to three candidates for the position of crown prince, and the Council selects one of them.
In the event that the Council rejects all the king's nominees, it may also nominate its own candidate. If the king does not approve this candidate, the Council votes, and the winner of the vote is declared crown prince. The law also stipulates that the crown prince must be selected within 30 days of the crowning of a new king.
However, this recently introduced mechanism has been superseded by a royal decree, depriving king Abdullah's successor (Salman) of the right to choose his own heir. The decree also means that Muqrin, should he succeed to the throne, will have the opportunity to set the future line of succession among king Saud's grandsons.
Western commentator Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute has continued to speculate on the succession question, which he claims is extraordinarily complicated and difficult to predict.
According to Henderson, Muqrin's appointment as deputy crown prince has thrown intelligence analysts into confusion as in July last year Muqrin was dismissed as chief of Saudi General Intelligence. Although no clear reason was cited, observers assumed at the time that he lacked enthusiasm for overthrowing the pro-Iranian al-Assad regime in Syria at a time when Riyadh was competing with Qatar for influence over the jihadist fighters in Syria.
Henderson admits that the assumption that Muqrin had fallen out of favour may have been misplaced, especially given that only three months later his cousin, prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, was appointed to the key post of interior minister, it seeming that he was being primed as a potential successor to the throne.
Henderson said that he had met the prince during his visit to Washington last month, when Bin Nayef met with US president Barack Obama at the White House. This privilege is not ordinarily granted to visiting dignitaries of his rank, so it was widely perceived as being a sign that Washington was giving its blessings to Bin Nayef's aspirations for the throne.
However, there are many other possible scenarios, one being that the line of succession in future will be in the hands of the Allegiance Council. Muetezz Salama, an expert on Gulf affairs at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, does not believe there will be a power struggle between the various branches of the al-Saud dynasty and specifically within the al-Sudeiri branch, or the “Sudeiri lobby” as some refer to it.
“Historically, the royal family has always held together in times of conflict,” he said. “Secondly, certain individuals have had a powerful presence among the sons of Nayef, Sultan and Salman, the first two of whom were crown princes before their deaths (Sultan died in 2011 and Naif in 2012). Prime among these sons are the current interior minister Mohammed Bin Nayef and Bandar Bin Sultan.”
Salama said that influential figures such as these would reach an accommodation with the clerical descendants of Mohammed Bin Abdel-Wahab and that this accord would shape governing influence over the Allegiance Council, “which has not yet exercised its functions but will do so in the future.”
Al-Ghamdi said that it was realistic to imagine that some individuals of the “fourth generation” could also assert their influence. However, how and to what extent was difficult to predict, he said, until it became clear how the king-making mechanism – the Allegiance Council – worked.
A second scenario is based on a more pessimistic outlook. Generally held by experts outside the kingdom, especially western experts, this argues that the spirit of consensus within the ruling dynasty will not last into the new generation, even if the succession question is managed by the Allegiance Council.
A senior expert at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation predicts major change and struggles of wills between the new generation of rulers, for example. Whether some will be inclined to move quickly towards the establishment of a constitutional monarchy or to a historical settlement between the rival branches of the ruling dynasty, there will emerge threats to the stability of the government and the state, he said.
Not long ago there was speculation that the 90-year-old king Abdullah would abdicate in order to secure a smooth succession. This scenario has since been largely dismissed due to the appointment of a deputy crown prince, though this has not alleviated concerns over the future line of succession among king Saud's grandchildren.
It will now fall to prince Muqrin to deal with one of the most delicate issues facing his country. Both domestic and foreign analysts will be keeping a close eye on his ability to strike a new political balance, in so doing creating a positive political climate and promoting a consensual mechanism for the transition of power.