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fahd bin abdulaziz al saud
Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

In Saudi Arabia power is a synonym for stability. The issue arises solely when a ruler dies. The criteria for succession is relatively simple: he has to be a direct descendant of the founder of the reign. Despite this, the matter can become extremely complicated due to a series of unwritten rules and of the briar patch of a royal court where, between legitimate and illegitimate siblings, weddings and concubines, there are, according to some estimates, between 4 to 7 thousand members. This is the reason why the next in line, picked among the males of course, is designated following a tribal and family negotiation whose prevailing criteria is age. This makes of Saudi Arabia a self-referential monarchy and a country without a Constitution, embodied in the Koran and the Sunna, and with a basic law, the Sharia.

King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, with a decree dated March 1, 1992, decided that his successor should not chosen only based on his age, but that, at the same time, a family consensus would also be required. The decree also stated that the nephews of the founder could also be added to the line of succession and that the king only could decide whether to dismiss an heir apparent regardless of his age if he was deemed inappropriate. By adding the nephews to the order of succession, king Fahd made the designation of a successor more complicated and contentious.

His successor, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, established the so-called Allegiance Council tasked with determining the line of succession. The king nominates three potential heir princes before the Council, which then decides which one to select. This organism includes the sons of the founder of the reign, Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud, the sons of the deceased brothers/half-brothers of the founder that cannot aspire to the throne, the sons of the king – for one, king Abdullah had four wives, 7 sons and 15 daughters – and the crown prince.

King Abdullah died on January 23, 2015 at the age of 90 following a long illness. He had been on the Saudi throne since 2006 after he had taken over his half-brother Fahd, who died at 75 after a years of ill health and inability to rule. Abdullah has now been replaced by another half-brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who is almost 80 years old and presumably affected by the Alzheimer's disease. Salman suffered from an ictus in the past, for which he was treated in the United States and that left him to deal with some problems with one of his arms.

This is the picture of the Saudi political system where age prevails regardless of the health of the ruler or of that of his heir and where the legitimacy of he who rises to the throne is solely determined by a political intrigue within the court. The health factor is relevant because, in the Saudi system, the king is also the de-facto Prime Minister.

The return of the Sudairi

Salman's ascension to the throne brings along the resurgence of the Sudairi clan, this is the family name of one of the most influential wives of the founder of the reign. The family had already contributed a king to the reign in the person of the now defunct Fahd. Salman has had three wives and rises on the Saudi political scene with a large family: five sons and a daughter from his first wedding, a son from his second one, five more sons from his third marriage. All male siblings are automatically nominated into the Allegiance Council.

The designated heir to the throne has now become crown prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who has become second in the line of succession and was nominated First Deputy Prime Minister. The prince is one of Salman's half-brothers, his mother is a Yemeni woman who, before becoming the 18th wife of the founder, was a waitress in court. His humble origins somehow affect his role as crown prince.

King Salman has also appointed as his second potential heir the son of a defunct half-brother of his, prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Nayef is also a Sudairi just like his father, Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who would have become king in stead of Salman had he not suddenly perished in 2012. In a sort of posthumous compensation, Nayef's son now enters the line of succession. The new Saudi ruler has also underlined how the Sudairi family remains the most influential among the founder's families. Mohammed bin Nayef has now been appointed Second Deputy Prime Minister and, at the same time, is still in charge of the Ministry of Interior, allowing him to cultivate his reputation of indomitable fighter in the war on terrorism.

At a first glance this succession mechanism might seem to work without any hitches. Nonetheless, it is striking how fast the new king decided to fill in the gaps in the order of succession by nominating his nephew Mohammed. King Salman's choice, apart from sending a signal to his court, has also been dictated by his ailing condition.

abdullah bin abdulaziz al saud
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

A new generation

There is a shadow lingering over the succession system. If Muqrin will take over at Salman's death, he will be the last of the founder's sons to rise to the throne. After him it will be the nephews' turn. A new generation of individuals, whatever that means in terms of behaviors and mindsets. With the advent of the third generation from the founder, reigns will suddenly become longer. Muqrin is 70 years old, while his nephew Mohammed is only 54.

Will the court's tradition be capable of holding back the vain desires of those aspiring to the throne when reigns abruptly last longer? Furthermore, Abdulaziz's line of succession had 26 potential crown princes and, despite the setbacks, age criteria prevailed. The nephews, instead, are a lot more and Mohammed's appointment as crown prince does not respect the age criteria linked to the seniority of the respective parents. This circumstance could potentially spark a series of litigations in the future.

It is not by coincidence that one of the king's first decisions has been to favor his own family: prince Mohammed bin Salman, the first male sibling of his third wive, has been appointed, at the age of 34, Minister of Defense and General Secretary of the Royal Court. Both positions could pave the way to higher goals. Along with his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, Mohammed bin Salman shares the responsibility over the reign's security, the Armed Forces and the Royal Guard. Another unspoken rule for the ascension to the Saudi throne is, in fact, having been involved in the country's security apparatus.

A third individual who deals with similar tasks is prince Mutaib bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 62, presently Minister of the National Guard. He is hence another potential candidate to the throne.

The stability of the Saudi regime depends on this game of chess, the truce will hold as long as the players respect the rules of the game. Mohammed bin Salman is described as an ambitious and aggressive character. We'll see whether he is going to abide by the age-rules given his young age. If a conflict will erupt, it will be with his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef because both of them control organizations that have a direct impact on the daily lives of the Saudis. The son of Nayef is at the helm of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, while Salman's son is at the head of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs.

salman bin abdulaziz al saud
Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud

Inevitable reforms

In the background to the alternation of the sovereigns and of their personal data are the different political scenarios that could develop.

Saudi Arabia is a country where changes, if any, are socially irrelevant. It is thus a mere academic exercise to debate whether king Abdullah was a reformist – for having opened the doors of the Consultative Council or Shura to women, granted them voting rights in local elections and having loosened the grip over the access to the internet – or whether the current monarch Salman is a conservative. It is pretty evident that the geriatric succession system is of little help.

The Arab Spring did not affect the world of the Saud family. The only difference between Salman and his predecessor is the fact that the latter has deeper ties with the Wahabi clergy and to the religious radicalism this interpretation of Islam spreads across the world. It is worthwhile to remember that it is exactly the indissoluble relationship between the Saudi royal family and the Wahabi clergy that grants the survival of the reign in a regime of reciprocity. However, the closeness to Wahabism also affects the relationship with the Shia. In this respect, Abdullah was more open minded than what Salman appears to be. Furthermore, we should never forget that Wahabi culture was the breeding ground for Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and that it still inspires several islamic extremist movements. If Wahabism ensures the stability and the legitimacy of the monarchy at home, it fuels terrorism abroad.

The future challenges facing the Saudi sovereign – and in this uphill path he will not be helped by his age, nor by his culture – are those of a constantly mutating world that will not allow for the paralysis in the evolution of Saudi society to last any longer. The young princes would be definitely more adequate for this task. They are the bearers of instances of change and are not as tied up in tribal bonds as their parents were. The founder Abdulaziz forced his siblings to spend part of their time together with the different tribes. The new generations, instead, have studied abroad and tasted the concepts of democracy and its freedoms.

If compared to the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia is still a country without political parties or political freedom, with a limited freedom of the press and where the condition of women and the respect of human rights are worthy of the fourth world. All of these political and social reforms will have to be addressed, sooner or later. And this is likely to happen with a progressive ruler. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are under the rule of a legal guardian – be it their father, husband or son – that decides over their entire life, from their wedding to the vacations, from their work to their studies. The reign is the same nation where two women have been charged in court for terrorism for having driven a car. It is the combination of a radical religious doctrine and a tribal legacy that still determines the way social relations are managed.

Exterior relations

Saudi Arabia should also rethink its foreign policy. The Arabian Peninsula is going through a lot of tensions. There are threats piling up along the borders of the country, in north with Iraq and in the south with Yemen. On the background there is the competition with Qatar over the guidance of the Sunnis and in the fight against the Shia and Iran. Several challenges and just as many threats. And if the surrounding areas are ebullient, the Saudi paralysis is not a viable strategy.

The now defunct king Abdullah, apart from the shy social reforms aiming at avoiding an arab spring in his reign, had also tried, when his health allowed him to, to play a foreign policy role. He had proposed a peace plan to Israelis and Palestinians and had understood the menaces looming over Saudi Arabia from the spread of religious radicalism and the consequent islamic terrorism. As stated above, Salman doesn't seem to be as susceptible to these topics.

On a geo-strategic level, there are other mutations taking place. Now that the United States have become self-sufficient in terms of energy needs, they are less dependent on Saudi oil supplies and thus the ties between the US and Saudi Arabia are not as indissoluble as they once were. The negotiations between Washington and Tehran over its nuclear program are the first symptom of this change of mood. At the end of the day, we return to the basic issue affecting a regional and islamic world in turmoil and a country ruled by a gerontocracy that is immune to change. The latter is a source of stability on one side, but also a symptom of extreme frailty.

The outcome of the struggle between tradition and modernity, absolutism and democracy, tribal societies vs libertarian societies, female segregation and human rights will determine the future of Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that this conflict will be solved by Salman, seventh king of the house of Saud, or by his half-brother Muqrin, the last direct descendant of the founder Abdulaziz. But when these changes will eventually occur we will have to wait and see which impact they'll have on the country.

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