The death of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan in New York on Oct. 22 was no surprise, coming as it did after a long series of illnesses. Sultan's active role in government had been much reduced for many years, so the immediate impact will be limited, and it has few implications for government stability or even core assumptions. But formally replacing Sultan involves key decisions concerning not only the immediate succession to the present king, who is 87, and the medium-term balance of power in the royal family.
Sultan's passing has required some adjustment to the current line of succession to King Abdullah. There is no principle of primogeniture in Saudi Arabia: all the kingdom's rulers since the death in 1953 of the founder King Abd al-Aziz have been his sons. The line of succession is decided by the senior members of the family, often after consultation with leading clerics. Sultan's full brother,Interior Minister Prince Nayef, has now been appointed to succeed Abdullah, while another full brother, Governor of Riyadh Prince Salman, is likely to become Nayef's successor.
Nayef is a controversial figure and there had been speculation that the Allegiance Council, a body established in 2006 to assist in the succession, could step in and change the plan. Abdullah appointed the Allegiance Council in part to reduce the power of the full brothers, known as theSudairi Seven. The five surviving Sudairis are Princes Nayef, Salman, Abd al-Rahman, Ahmed, and Turki. Nevertheless, the Sudairi brothers remain powerful and despite the fact that Nayef is personally disliked by much of the Allegiance Council, for him to be pushed out of the line of succession Abdullah would have had to be prepared to confront Nayef. The traditionally risk-averse Saudi ruling family was always unlikely to take that step. The council, however, will seek to prevent Nayef from establishing his son Mohammed in the direct line.
Within Saudi Arabia's allies concern has been expressed that Nayef, a strong conservative voice in Saudi policy deliberations, could usher in a harder line following Abdullah's more moderate rule, if and when he succeeds. But the idea that Abdullah is a reform-minded monarch is exaggerated. Abdullah has presided over some concessions on municipal council elections and championed issues such as men and women working together in scientific research institutions, but Nayef's conservatism is in line with Saudi policy on most issues.
Nevertheless, as Crown Prince and potentially later as king, Nayef is likely to raise concerns through the image he presents. Abdullah is careful to ensure that meetings with senior clerics are downplayed, while statements on, for example women's rights, are publicized. Nayef, in contrast, will be happy to downplay any hint of moderation. Moreover, his approach to regional issues is harder-line than Abdullah's. In the king's absence following surgery earlier this year, Nayef was the driving force behind Saudi moves to prevent the Bahraini government from compromising with protesters' demands. Nayef's influence is also likely to affect the always-difficult relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. While Abdullah has not been able to manage a real rapprochement, he has until recently been able to ensure that a more moderate dialogue was being discussed.
As crown prince, Nayef's impact on the Iranian relationship will be muted by the king, but if he does succeed Abdullah, Nayef is likely to want to use the potential for a confrontation to reinforce his credentials as the defender of conservative Sunni values. Moreover, he is likely to seek greater involvement in Iraq and will probably be less careful than Abdullah to avoid antagonizing Shia clerics and parties in Iraq by over support for Sunni Arab tribal groups.
Crispin B. Hawes is the Middle East Practice Head for Eurasia Group
October 28, 2011, FP