In a surprise move, Muqrin bin Abd al-Aziz, the youngest surviving son of the Kingdom's founder Ibn Saud, was named deputy prime minister, formalizing his position as crown prince in waiting. The Royal Order was announced on state television on March 27, though its outlines had been decided upon during the previous week. Interestingly, the public announcement came on the day before President Obama's visit to Riyadh, the moment perhaps being deliberately chosen as a riposte to American hints that they would prefer to see a member of the younger generation of princes move up the ladder sooner rather than later.
"Prince Muqrin bin Abd al-Aziz is granted allegiance as deputy crown prince, as crown prince should the position of the crown prince become vacant, and as king of the state should the positions of both king and crown prince become vacant at the same time", read a statement from the Royal Court. Furthermore, a clause was inserted specifying that the order could not be "amended or replaced in any way or by any person, reason or interpretation." The decree was necessary, said the statement reported by state media agency SPA, "to maintain the structure of the state and its future, and to guarantee...continuity on the basis on which it was founded." Princes, shaykhs, senior clerics, government officials and ordinary citizens pledged allegiance in ceremonies across the country. Muqrin held a reception in Riyadh, and regional governors were deputized to accept allegiances on his behalf.
Muqrin had already been appointed second deputy prime minister on February 1, 2013, and was informally seen as second in line to the throne. Though there is no absolute requirement for that position, it has been used in the past, mainly to avoid leaving the ship of state rudderless if both the king and crown prince happened to be abroad at the same time. This arrangement was used successfully when King Abdallah was travelling to Europe, and convalescing in Morocco, but with the health of both the king and Crown Prince Salman in decline, they are unlikely to leave the Kingdom at the same time again. The new decree, rather, formalizes the position of heir to the heir in waiting, while, crucially, stipulating that this arrangement may under no circumstances be altered. The precedent-setting measure means there are now two crown princes, each awaiting their turn on the throne.
By allowing Muqrin to step in as regent, the royal order aims to avoid the potential of a situation where both the king and crown prince become incapacitated. The king has had a number of surgeries for his back, and now depends in the aid of a walker. Though still alert and strong-willed, he tires easily and breathes through an oxygen tube. For his part, Salman has Alzheimer's and his health is also in decline. For this reason, one view is that the new measure gives Abdallah the option to abdicate for health reasons. Further, the language of the order, with the use of the word "vacancy", may suggest that Salman will be unable to take up his duties. However, despite this being a reasonable precaution, it is unlikely the king will abdicate. There is little precedent for such a move and does not seem in character. In addition, the Allegiance Commission, set up by Abdallah in October 2006, already allows for such a case, with the provision for a special and temporary transitional committee.
While superficially the aim appears to be the removal of uncertainty, it is notable that it bears the signature of Salman as well, indicating his full support of the measure, despite the impression that it takes future succession matters out of his hands. In fact, there is no reason Salman could not invoke this very precedent to appoint his own heir to Muqrin. On this basis, Salman's approval of the terms of the decree would suggest he, too, is looking beyond, and plans to oversee the power transition to the next generation.