The next generation of Saudi royals is being groomed

By Crispin Hawes

The Saudi succession process seems secure, if the major participants remain healthy. However, recently-appointed Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud is encountering some opposition from within his own Sudairi branch of the ruling Saudi royal family with three of his brothers lobbying for advancement. These internal arguments are likely to become more vocal in the coming weeks.

The appointment of Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud as crown prince and his full brother Prince Salman to succeed him has clarified the immediate succession to the Saudi throne in the event of King Abdullah's death. In reality, the Saudi state remains extremely stable. Not only is the immediate succession secure, but the primacy of the Saudi royal family remains guaranteed by continued support from a number of important groups. There is discontent within Saudi Arabia, without doubt, but the core social compact between the Saudi royal family and central and western Saudis is solid, bolstered by the support of key clerical and commercial communities, tribal ties, and the state's ongoing ability to fund domestic development, economic growth, and welfare provision.

There is, however, an ongoing debate within the royal family about the role of the next generation of princes. The Sudairi branch has been the most powerful clan for the past three decades. The late King Fahd, who succeeded to the throne in 1982, was the oldest of the group of full brothers known as the Sudairi Seven-the seven sons of the kingdom's founder and Princess Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, a member of a powerful Nejdi family. The crown prince has four remaining full brothers, one of whom, Salman, is the current defense minister and Nayef's successor as noted above. The other three, Ahmed, Abd al-Rahman, and Turki, are currently agitating for promotion. Abd al-Rahman was deputy minister for defense until November 2011, but was relieved when Salman was appointed. He argues he should have been promoted. Meanwhile Ahmed, who is Nayef's deputy at the Ministry of the Interior, has complained that Nayef is actively promoting the interest of his own son, Mohammed. Lastly, Turki, who returned to Riyadh in early 2011 after a long and at least partly-voluntary exile in Cairo, is also agitating for a more senior position.

These disputes are an indication that the slow transition of power to the next generation is under way. At this point Mohammed bin Nayef, King Abdullah's son Mitaeb, and Mohammed, the son of the late King Fahd and current governor of the Eastern Province, are the most likely to move into the regime's highest echelons. All three are gaining plaudits in their current positions and seem to have the support of the current king, as well as Princes Nayef and Salman.

But the Saudi regime is extremely risk averse. It is likely that if Abdullah were to die in the near future, the Allegiance Council (created by Abdullah to manage the succession) would delay the appointment of a successor to the new crown prince for some time. If at that time there were concerns over the health of either Nayef or Salman, the council would likely appoint another member of the current generation as a regent to prevent concerns over a potentially rapid sequence of successions.

Nevertheless, the Allegiance Council is actively discussing the long-term succession and rumors of disagreements between senior members of the ruling family are likely to emerge. In the coming few weeks, the king is likely to undergo medical treatment. Previous rounds of medical treatment have given rise to outbreaks of (by Saudi standards) sharp public disagreement between members of the ruling family. The Saudi state has a long-term incentive to ensure that the succession debate develops in a way that allows the public to become accustomed to less well-known figures; as a result the Saudis are likely to allow a level of public discussion regarding the succession that is unusual for the kingdom.