Early reactions to recent changes in Saudi succession have made much of Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as deputy crown prince and the fact that both he and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef share a Sudairi grandmother. Neither of these really matters. First, the notion of a Sudairi takeover is an oversimplification that obfuscates more than it clarifies. Instead, analysts should pay closer attention to macro-level changes at the federal and local levels of Saudi government to determine whether these changes represent decentralization or a concentration of power. Second, Mohammed bin Salman’s power, while quite visible amid the Saudi intervention in Yemen, is highly dependent on his father and may not be durable. Very little is known about internal support for Mohammed bin Salman, either within the Sudairi branch or among Al Saud more broadly. Older members of the royal family have reportedly expressed doubts about him, and six of the 34 members of the Allegiance Council withheld support for his promotion.
Claims of a Sudairi coup are based on very little information and some sweeping assumptions. Neither Mohammed bin Nayef’s nor Mohammed bin Salman’s mother is a Sudairi. The former is from the Jiluwi branch of the royal family while the latter is a non-royal descendant of the leadership of the Ajman tribe. In fact, Mohammed bin Salman’s three half-brothers—Sultan, Abdulaziz, and Faisal—have a greater claim to the Sudairi mantle, as both their mother and paternal grandmother were Sudairis. Moreover, if this truly were a Sudairi power play, what explains the sidelining of Salman’s full-brother Ahmad, the most senior Sudairi not to have been removed from potential succession? After serving as deputy minister of interior for decades, Ahmad briefly occupied the ministerial position in 2012 before being replaced by his nephew.
The real story is not that the top three positions in government are held by sons or grandsons of Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi, but that only three members of the royal family are now running ministries (Defense, Interior, and the National Guard). Three additional members of Al Saud—Saud bin Faisal, Mansour bin Mutaib, and Mansour bin Muqrin—are ministers of state and senior advisers, while many other members of the royal family serve as provincial or regional governors. To be sure, power is concentrated in the hands of the king and his closest advisers, including his son. However, outside the security apparatus, commoners and technocrats are now running day-to-day affairs in the kingdom.
Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as deputy crown prince is indeed a major change—and he has taken on a wide variety of important official roles within the government—but this does not mean his appointment cannot or will not be swiftly undone, as Michael Stephens and David Roberts have pointed out. Mohammed bin Salman owes his swift rise to his father, and few are willing challenge him as long as the king is alive. But whether he becomes the next crown prince, and for how long he holds on to that position, will depend less on his current title and more on his standing and that of his supporters within the ruling family.
King Salman can do nothing about his son’s position after he is gone, just as King Abdullah could not ensure Prince Muqrin’s claim. Even though then Crown Prince Salman assured that Muqrin’s position—which had the explicit, if divided, support of the Allegiance Council—was secure, few Saudis were surprised that Muqrin stepped down.
In that sense, the title of deputy crown prince is relatively meaningless. It was instituted by King Abdullah to reassure the Saudi public and Saudi Arabia’s allies that the kingdom would not be left rudderless in the event both the king and the crown prince died or were incapacitated. Muqrin’s appointment was either a placeholder or a feeble attempt to install a political and ideological ally over the objections of many within the royal family. Decrees of former kings can easily be undone by decrees of the current king. The amount of turnover in senior positions and the institutional restructuring under King Abdullah (and now under King Salman) should make clear that no individual or faction can stake a perpetual claim.
Mohammed bin Salman might surge in popularity because of his generous handouts and his role in the war in Yemen, but he could just as well fall from grace if the situation there continues to deteriorate. Madawi Al-Rasheed argues that the king and his son “cannot afford to achieve anything less than total victory” in Yemen. She continues, “Surely the young prince wants to be well established before his father dies.”
In an insightful piece, Elizabeth Dickinson gets a lot right, but she also jumps to a few suspect conclusions. She writes that since Mohammed bin Nayef has no sons, “He is therefore unlikely to shake up the order of succession when he becomes king in the same way that King Salman just did.” However, a new king has many reasons to make appointments that have nothing to do with assuring the status of his descendants. Unless Mohammed bin Salman can make himself crown prince, his power will likely be greatly diminished after the death of his father. Of course, there is precedent elsewhere in the region for the deathbed appointment of a son as heir apparent. In 1999, King Hussein of Jordan removed his brother Hassan and appointed his son Abdullah crown prince weeks before he died.
Despite the perceived institutionalization of politics in Saudi Arabia, formal titles mean relatively little. Age, proximity to power, charisma, and the ability to deliver favors all matter much more. H. R. P. Dickson makes an interesting observation about Saudi succession in his classic The Arab of the Desert (1949). He notes that King Abdulaziz’s appointment of his son Saud in 1933 was met with great skepticism in Saudi Arabia: “In private the King has said over and over again to the members of his family, ‘After my death, let the best man win.’” It took over a decade after the king’s death in 1953, but ultimately Faisal prevailed and pushed aside his half-brother to assume the throne.
Regardless of what happens to Mohammed bin Salman, the transition to the next generation will come much more quickly than it would have had Muqrin stayed in office. After this transition, managing the royal family internally will get more difficult. With so many cousins to appease, whoever inherits the throne will have to make many more compromises and hard decisions than his predecessor.
Nathan Hodson is a PhD Candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @NHodson.