Saudi Succession: Regional and International Impacts

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on 23 January, prompted reflection of a reign that saw Saudi power reach new heights as the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East saw drastic changes over the past decade. As King Abdullah’s health declined, the prospect of the Saudi succession attracted the attention of scholars and politicians across the globe given the state’s pivotal role in the region and its close relationship with the United States. The smooth transmission of power to King Salman, while a distinct show of unity for the state, glossed over the sticky family dynamics that underlie the generational issue in the succession line. As some anticipated familial and factional rivalries to breakdown into internal chaos amongst the princes, the swift appointments of crown prince and deputy crown prince impeccably set up the dynasty for stability for well into the mid-century.

Photo courtesy of syedsaqlainmahmood, © 2015, public domain
Photo courtesy of syedsaqlainmahmood, © 2015, public domain

Since the death of King Abdulaziz in 1953, all subsequent Saudi rulers have been his sons; King Salman, at the age of 79 and with the youngest son Muqrin at 69 now as crown prince, points to the significant issue of this aging line that will soon need to be replaced by a younger generation. Thus, of particular importance was the appointment of the position of the deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, currently interior minister, and the first of the founder’s grandsons to become heir to the throne. Prince Mohammed’s appointment was met with acute attention in the Middle East as he has stood out as a strong, pivotal figure especially in regards to his policy approaches to regional enemies and terrorist threats. He is the quintessential realist: when it comes to security, Prince Mohammed has been vigilant in quelling extremism and maintaining a strong domestic intelligence network as interior minister. He has tactfully approached the issue of terrorist recruitment from within and developed a programme that included working directly with the families of dead militants. Realising a hardline would only prompt further extremism, he tells families their sons were not heartless criminals, but ‘victims’. This philosophy is backed up by the logic that ‘If you stop 5 but create 50 that’s dumb’ as Prince Mohammed was quoted as saying. Many have commended his approach, applauding his integrity and deep involvement in combating Islamic extremism.

Unlike King Abdullah and King Salman who were educated in court, Prince Mohammed graduated from Lewis and Clark, a small liberal arts college in Oregon, prompting some to believe he has a personally liberal stance to the matters of education and opportunities for women. However, the prince’s personal social beliefs, whatever they may be, are unlikely to have any influence for change in the deeply conservative Saudi Arabia; in true realist form, the prince would not let social issues deter him from the course of a security-prioritised foreign policy focus. Princeton University professor Bernard Haykel confirms this prediction: ‘None of these people are ideological. There is no commitment to anything beyond their interests’. Prince Mohammed is unlikely to champion any causes that may result in the Saudi population questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy when the ultimate goal is security and stability so fragile. In fact, Prince Mohammed’s commitment to ensuring the national security interest has resulted in policies that have evoked criticism by some human rights groups. As interior minister he has been known to silence and punish political opposition with unnecessarily harsh sentences even detaining non-violent dissidents in the name of national unity and interest.

Further, as can be expected by the Saudi model, which utilises its enormous oil wealth to maintain order domestically in a case of internally balancing against civil unrest; in the face of the tumultuous surrounding neighbourhood it has for decades bandwagoned with the United States for military protection. Ideological differences aside, the mutual interests both seek to gain have cultivated a rich, though seemingly unnatural, alliance that over the years has recieved great attention by both parties. Indeed, President Obama shortened his planned trip to India to pay his respects to King Abdullah. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, however, has been strained in recent years under the Obama Administration; King Abdullah wished the United States had taken a harder stance and taken military action against Iran in 2008 and believed the administration was neglecting Saudi concerns in the region. As Saudi Arabia’s great military protector, the cooperation between the two states is paramount for the country surrounded by the threats of the Islamic State and instability in Yemen. The appointment of Prince Mohammed is of further significance given the priority of this alliance. He has personally been instrumental in fostering the intelligence cooperation between the Saudis and Americans, leading some such as Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to speculate Mohammed bin Nayef’s tough stance on combating Islamic militants and terrorists will keep ties to the United States strong.

So what potential does this new line of Saudi succession mean for the region and the alliance with the United States mean? Because the transition of rulers was so smooth, there will most likely not be much divergence from the current trajectory Saudi foreign affairs have been heading this past decade. The souring of US-Saudi relations is due to the line taken by President Obama since assuming power; if the relationship between the states is to return to the closeness felt prior to the Obama administration, the United States will likely have to be the one to reach out. What has stood out this past decade in regards to Saudi Arabia’s aggressive foreign policy is its increasing tendency to go it alone and unilaterally deal with regional issues. While its military alliance with the United States has been a cornerstone of its foreign policy practically since the beginning of the monarchy, the divergence of policy in relation to Syria, Egypt and Iran have created a distance that; despite Prince Mohammed’s desire to maintain a close intelligence relationship with the United States, is unlikely to change anytime soon. That is not to say relations will deteriorate further: though Saudi Arabia has gone out on its own, its successes have been sporadic and with Yemen’s instability allows an opportunity for Al Qaeda and the Islamic State continues to expand and recruit across Iraq and Syria, the national security threat is as great as ever. Always the status quo power of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to act in any way that would jeopardise its security to make itself independent from the United States.


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