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Feature Article
2017-06-15

The End of Consensus: Uncharted Terrain?

The rapid promotion of King Salman's son, Muhammad, highlights a fundamental contrast between the king and his predecessor. In the matter of succession, owing to his position within the royal family and a different outlook resulting from that advantage, Salman can afford to downplay the role of consensus and effect a radical break from the past.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Much has been made of the unprecedented career trajectory of the deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, owing exclusively to his relationship to his father, such that it is easy to overlook the underlying dynamic at play. Much like King Saud in the 1950s,who showed no hesitation in appointing his own sons to key government positions, often while they were still teenagers, Salman too shows signs of feeling unconstrained by the conventional limitations imposed by rulers of the Al Saud dynasty. Saud famously tried to fill every available role with his own progeny, no doubt hoping to create a parallel line of succession. In the wake of the death of his father, the Kingdom's founder Ibn Saud, there were few rules to guide the new monarch. The traditional ways of the desert chieftain (and Saud very consciously styled himself after a bedouin shaykh) informed his world view, and in succession matters, much of what was later accepted (by outsiders) as the dictate of Ibn Saud (for example the belief that future kings must be borne of a Saudi mother) is in fact apocryphal. In the heady years of the new dynasty, which was also the third incarnation of the Saudi state, Saud felt few checks on the exercise of his new-found power. Whereas others of the royal family understood that the founder wanted his sons to share the burden of rule, and avoid at all costs the disastrous events of the Al Saud fratricidal wars of the late nineteenth century, Saud was blithely unconcerned by the darkening clouds on the horizon.

Ultimately, Saud's incompetence and mismanagement spelled the end of his reign, but had he continued unchecked, his brothers would surely have found a way to remove him. In their understanding, the Kingdom was a patrimony to be shared among themselves, not something to accrue to the benefit of one of their siblings only. The trauma of the Saud debacle left a deep imprint on the royal family (and was itself a result of the lasting repercussions of the internecine wars between the sons of Faysal bin Turki, grandfather of Ibn Saud, which weakened the state and rendered it powerless to resist an outside challenge to their rule). As a consequence, the brothers agreed on an informal mechanism to pass the throne along to each in succession, according to seniority, excluding the incapable, the uninterested, and those stained by scandal. This first, somewhat naive understanding, was fleshed out in later years to allow for more predictability, whilst still providing for individual ambition to shine through. By the time of King Fahd, one could say with some certainty who would rule in the next five or ten years, always making allowance for the known (health issues) and the unknown (behind the scenes bargaining).

Later still, more formal mechanisms made their appearance, beginning with Fahd's 1995 Succession Law, and continuing with Abdallah's 2007 Allegiance Commission. Both were attempts to establish succession on an even more predictable footing, which had the effect of quelling popular speculation (with its corollary, public cynicism and what would hence be the delegitimisation of Al Saud rule), and providing market stability for investors. Two further influences had an effect - the rise in power after 1979 of the religious establishment, which was a disincentive to social change and so encouraged a conservative approach to royal family politics, and the entrenchment of the al-Sudayri branch of the family. The Sudayri bloc, a group of well-connected brothers who sat on key levers of state power such as Interior and Defense, were averse to political change, as they preferred to bide their time until their own offspring were strong enough to defend their inheritance, should a parallel line of succession be established. The result was sclerosis, and gerontocracy, as each brother in turn awaited his turn at the helm, unwilling to confront an inevitable handing over of power to the next generation of royals.

Related articles: The Death of Prince Mish'al - Demise of the Allegiance Committee?
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Past Feature Articles
The Death of Prince Mish'al - Demise of the Allegiance Committee?

With the death of Prince Mish'al, Chairman of the Allegiance Commission - the formal entity established to decide succession matters - King Salman has an opportunity to reconstitute the body and restore its relevancy at a time of great uncertainty over the role of his favorite son, the controversial Muhammad, who serves as deputy crown prince. It is a course of action Salman is unlikely to take.

Hazards Ahead For Muhammad bin Salman: Trump To The Rescue?

The star of the deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, will rise now that the Americans have thrown their weight behind Saudi efforts to reign in Iranian regional influence. President Trump, an unlikely ally, may ensure that Muhammad's place in the succession is secure.

An Asian Tour: Opportunity At Home?

King Salman's Asian tour left the Crown Prince in charge of affairs as his deputy. But while the king's visit to Indonesia garnered worldwide attention for the displays of wealth and the size of his retinue, Muhammad bin Nayif was presented with a golden opportunity to raise his profile at home.

Taking the Measure of the New Administration: Change in Store, but for Whom?

Despite U.S. President Trump's unorthodox style, Saudi has appeared to take the new administration in stride. This is not solely due to diplomatic niceties; the royals are cautiously optimistic that the Americans will lend their weight to a regional effort to contain and confront Iran, a matter which overshadows all else. But the appearance of Trump on the scene threatens to upend royal family domestic politics as well.

Move, Countermove - Searching For Equilibrium?

The Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, although facing pressure on multiple fronts, has skillfully outmanouevred his adversaries by backing them into a corner. By making himself indispensable, he forces potential challengers to his place in the succession to accept an outcome they would not otherwise have chosen.

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