How stable is Saudi monarchy after King Abdullah's death?

On 23 January, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah died at the age of 90 and was succeeded by his half-brother Salman, 79, one of the last sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder Ibn Saud.

The change in the monarchy comes at an eventful time for the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s economy is having to cope with the fall of more than 60% in the global oil price. The regime is keeping a watchful eye on dissent, including in the mainly Shia Eastern Province, and on internal security amid concerns over returning fighters from conflicts such as the Syrian crisis. Its foreign policy is trying to manoeuvre not only on the challenge to Syria’s Assad regime, but also the collapse of the government in neighbouring Yemen, the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the stability of the Bahraini monarchy.

So what are the prospects for Saudi stability?

The immediate answer is a large question mark. As Crown Prince, Salman was in line for the throne, but there have been issues for some time over his physical and mental health, with reports that he is suffering from dementia. In recent years, he has had a stroke and a spinal injury.

Of course, the regime did not refer to these issues as it accepted the congratulations of foreign leaders; however, the lack of significant public statements from Salman in recent years has suggested that he may be little more than a figurehead for power which lies elsewhere.

Salman’s condition and the dispersal of power has already prompted shrewd Saudi observers to look deeper in the monarchy, where there are two factions which have been fencing for influence since before Abdullah’s demise. One of those factions is around Muqrin, the youngest son of Ibn Saud and thus the last of the ‘second generation’ after King Salman, and the other is around Mohammad bin Nayef, Abdullah’s nephew and thus one of the ‘third generation’.

On the surface, the succession balanced these factions. Muqrin, who had been Deputy Crown Prince, was named Crown Prince. Mohammad bin Nayef became Deputy Crown Prince while retaining his post as Interior Minister.

However, the dynamics of power go beyond those positions. Muqrin’s appointment as Deputy Crown Prince last spring was seen as an endorsement of his son, Mutaib – who has led the National Guard – as a future King after Salman and then his father. Mutaib’s base was reinforced with the appointment of Prince Khaled bin Bandar, another of his faction, as head of Saudi intelligence services.

Meanwhile, Mohammad bin Nayef was establishing himself as head of the Interior Ministry. Initially, the appointment was seen as a possible poisoned chalice, given the potential dissatisfaction of Saudis with the tough measures against dissent; however, he has successfully avoided any pitfalls and should continue to build his position.

The royal logic is that Muqrin’s succession to Salman should avoid any immediate confrontation between the factions. Beyond that, the rivalry of Mohammad bin Nayef – likely to then be Crown Prince – and Mutaib could shake the appearance of a settled monarchy.

The prospect of a Mohammad bin Nayef–Mutaib showdown is still distant enough to be speculation. Perhaps more importantly, the Saudi system’s claim to stability has been that it is bigger than any individual.

Any bickering for power threatens a royal bureaucracy that has ensured decades of unmatched wealth and substantial influence; if not for many Saudis, then for the ruling elite. The 1979 uprising, especially in Eastern Province, and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by insurgents calling for the monarchy’s overthrow was a shock to the system. The lesson – that enforcement of conservative religious and social practices must always be matched by the appearance of unity and authority – has been taken to heart to this day, even with the claimed ‘reforms’ of King Abdullah.

That unity-and-authority lesson is reinforced by Saudi Arabia’s special economic position. Any question over royal stability would unsettle energy markets, which in turn unsettles Saudi revenues and political influence. Given the conditions that have brought the decline in oil prices since last June – a decline which the Saudis see as part of the global market, which they are loath to challenge – Riyadh will not want to add another variable with internal bickering.

Some media outlets have excitedly tried to use the royal succession as a catalyst for a realignment of Saudi foreign policy, notably over the Syrian crisis. That is unlikely to happen. While Syria will continue to be a challenge for Riyadh, the monarchy will not suddenly accept an Assad regime which it sees as poisonous for the region. On the other hand, the Saudis will not pursue confrontation with Iran, even as Tehran backs Assad – the slow squeeze on the Islamic Republic through economic pressure and falling oil revenues is far more effective.

The Saudi monarchy and system rests on conservative pragmatism. That pragmatism is not likely to embrace sudden change and even less the instability of internal conflict. So even with the health issues of its King and the royal hopes of some of its many princes, expect nothing other than the face of stability from the Kingdom.

Professor Scott Lucas
Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor of
EA WorldView, a specialist website on Iran, Syria, and the Middle East