Political Earthquake Hits Saudi Arabia?

 by Emile Nakleh

In the early morning of Wednesday April 29, the Saudi King Salman issued 25 royal decrees announcing major succession and other personnel changes that created shockwaves in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world. These decrees were announced less than 100 days since he issued his first appointments after ascending to the throne in January of this year.

Some commentators described the decrees as an “earthquake,” while others referred to them as a “soft coup.” Regardless of the description, King Salman has stirred the royal family’s political pot and ushered in a new line of succession.

The announcements applied to two key aspects of governance: the succession and the management of foreign policy. On the first, the King replaced his brother Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud with Muhammad bin Nayef, also known in the West as MBN, who three months ago was designated deputy crown prince. In addition, the king appointed his young son Muhammad, currently the defense minister, deputy crown prince, which puts him in line to the Saudi throne.

Another significant decree replaced veteran Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal with Adel al-Jubayr, the current Saudi ambassador to the United States.

What Does All This Mean?

Regardless of whether these decrees are a political “earthquake” or just another demonstration of the opaque internal Saudi royal family dynamics, the new appointments come in the midst of unprecedented domestic and regional challenges facing Al Saud. Furthermore, the decrees denote several important “firsts” since the kingdom was created over 80 years ago.

For the first time, the swift change in the succession plan signals the end of the rule of the founder’s children and ushers in a new generation of grandchildren. The recently deposed crown prince, Muqrin, is the youngest living son of Abd al-Aziz’s 35 children and the last to have any hope of continuing the rule by the first generation. The current King Salman will be the last of the founder’s children to rule Saudi Arabia.

Also for the first time, the decree directed the succession to go specifically to two children of the Sudayri full brothers. The name refers to the tribe from which the founder’s most favored wife hailed. The late King Abdullah was from a different mother and hence a half brother. Furthermore, the succession designation focused on the children of two specific brothers, Nayef, the former powerful minister of interior and crown prince, and Salman, the current king.

The removal of Saud al-Faysal as foreign minister again illustrates the marginalization of the children of previous kings. Adel Jubayr also will be the first non-royal since the founding of the kingdom to assume the position of foreign minister.

Crown Prince MBN and Foreign Minister Jubayr are close friends of the United States. Despite the kingdom’s disagreement with Washington’s approach to Iran, these two leaders feel comfortable in their dealings with American officials. According to media reports, MBN has had a close and enduring relationship with US intelligence that goes back to the Bush administration.

As I mentioned in a previous posting, MBN’s relatively pragmatic approach to the region and tough stand on terrorism could facilitate collaboration with the United States and with Iran if a nuclear agreement is reached. He could also be well situated to play a pivotal role in helping settle regional conflicts.

Challenges and Choices

Domestically, Saudi Arabia is facing high unemployment among its youth. Its economy is feeling the pinch of low oil prices. Education is another critical challenge.

The traditional Saudi education has not prepared the country’s youth to compete for jobs in the modern global economy, leaving many of them frustrated, alienated, and without a sense of national identity or deep loyalty to Al Saud. Some of the youth have turned to “jihad” and terrorism. Others who no longer benefit from the economic largesse and have no voice in the running of the country might begin to agitate for political reform.

The regime’s expected ruthless response to domestic discontent could spark a “Saudi spring.” If that happens, the “coming collapse of the Gulf monarchies,” as Professor Christopher Davidson of Durham University has posited, would occur much sooner than experts would have predicted. Learning a lesson from the deep popular challenges facing present Arab dictatorships, family rule in the Gulf would be unable to buck the tide of bent-up popular frustrations and demands for genuine reform without bloodshed.

Although the Obama administration might attempt to mollify Gulf Arab rulers with promised arms sales at the upcoming Camp David meeting, media reports indicate that American officials also would make it clear that such weapons should not be used against domestic protests. The president has already stated that the biggest challenge facing these regimes comes from within because of undemocratic rule and exclusion of their peoples from governance.

As the Saudi royal family grows in numbers, demands for state subsidies become more pressing. Corruption will become more acute, and the struggle for economic and political power among influential members of the second generation of royals would become more vicious and destructive.

The survival instinct that drove the founder and his children to rule by consensus will not necessarily filter down to the grandchildren, especially those who feel marginalized by the two rising stars, Muhammad bin Nayef and Muhammad bin Salman. The religious tribal alliances that Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud and his children forged in order to establish their authority across Arabia do not hold the same sway over the new generation of grandchildren. If deep jealousies and the struggle for influence and wealth break into open warfare within the family, they could spell disaster for the Saudi state. The demise of this absolute monarchy would no longer be unthinkable.

Although many within the ruling family view MBN with respect because of his counter-terrorism portfolio, they do not see Muhammad bin Salman in the same light. He is young, inexperienced, and ambitious, and derives unlimited power from his closeness to his father the king.

According to media reports, domestic and international dissatisfaction with the mission and persecution of the Yemen war is growing. The Houthis have not been defeated, Iran has not been weakened, and Yemen is on the verge of collapse. Daily bombings and destruction have only exacerbated the human misery in Yemen, which of course started before the Saudi air campaign.

Because of the unfathomable human tragedy unfolding in Yemen, international pressure will ultimately force Saudi Arabia to end its senseless war. When this happens, many Saudis, some members within the royal family, Yemenis, and other Arabs will hold the king responsible for his poorly thought-out, counterproductive military adventure in Yemen.

Of course King Salman’s recent succession architecture might not hold. The Bahraini, liberal on-line publication Bahrain Mirror has predicted that the new succession plan could evolve along three possible lines: King Salman changes his mind and removes MBN as Crown Prince and replaces him with son Muhammad; once king, MBN alters the succession plan from his cousin to his immediate family; or MBN and MBS form a symbiotic alliance to cement their hold on power at the expense of other Sudayri cousins.

US Policy

As they contemplate new policies toward the Gulf region, American policymakers should beware of the new complexities in Gulf and other Arab societies and the salient role of religious sectarianism in the Arab dictators’ political calculus. Gulf rulers are determined to bring up their fear of Iran at their meeting with President Obama this month. Some of them, however, especially MBN of Saudi Arabia, surely understand Iran’s historic role in the region and the logic behind Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran.

As MBN begins to comprehend the folly of his cousin’s Yemen war, he would explore diplomatic avenues to bring the war to a halt, which require Iran’s participation. MBN could also play a critical role in convincing MBS to swallow the “poison pill” and seek a negotiated settlement in Yemen, to paraphrase the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s statement about ending the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s. MBN will have to convince King Salman and his son Muhammad that Gulf stability—domestically and regionally—serves Saudi interests.

If Gulf stability serves the Saudi strategic regional doctrine, then the on-going instability and repression in Bahrain would be viewed as detrimental to this doctrine and will have to be changed. If MBN survives the family’s opaque, Byzantine machinations, he will be in a position to effect a fair and equitable compromise between the Al Khalifa ruling family and the Bahraini opposition. As regional stability also serves the American national interest, the Obama administration should stand ready to help.

Photo: Mohammad bin Nayef with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

An earlier version of this piece mistakenly asserted, based on a source in Arabic, that Mut’ib bin Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud had been removed as head of the Saudi National Guard. He remains in that position.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. It is ironical that Qatar’s FM was also kicked out recently after having had a leading role in the anti Syria campaign. It seems that the war in Syria is disrupting tremendously the GCC monarchies as well as Jordan. Would the Yemen war perpetrated by Saudi Arabia add to the danger of further destabilization?

  2. I always appreciate Emile Nakhleh’s thoughtful and fact-filled articles as I find them highly educational about a remote area with an even remoter political machine. Regarding the line of succession, the recent changes, and the overall political climate over there, it’s all rather hard to digest because of how antiquated and anachronistic the whole Saudi monarchy is. We’re in the second decade of the third millennium and yet this one country is still being run by the spoiled and autocratic children (can we call them children?) of the first king from 80 years ago. On one hand we make jokes about how these rich princes throw their money around and live in the lap of luxury not having ever worked a day in their lives, on the other hand we have a very inconvenience alliance with them. On one hand we see the fruits of the nature of this regime in the form of the rise of Al Qaeda who originated there and was nurtured by the royals, on the other hand they never pay the price of their miscalculations. One one hand we claim to promote abroad our values of secular democracy and transparency, on the other hand we look the other way as those we call our “allies” practice the complete opposite in the form of religious kleptocrasy, extreme corruption and sadistic repression. As if the idea of being ruled by a strict family of kings in this day and age is not hard enough to digest, without the participation of the millions of the citizens, this family decides the successor to the king based on which one was the offspring of the favorite wife of the first king, or which half brother is from a Yemeni mother, or which one has a blacker beard. It’s as though you’re reading a historical novel for entertainment. It would all be very amusing except that we seem to think it’s a good idea to have hitched our wagon to this one antiquated family in a highly volatile part of the world, and to give them an incredible amount of say and influence in a region after witnessing how much damage that influence has already done to the region.

    There is no question in my mind that an Arab spring by the pent-up anger and frustration of a marginalized population is lurking in the background. They have shunned every opportunity to introduce reform and mitigate the chances of uprising and instead continued to increase repressive measures and rule through absolute force. For every action there is a reaction. History tells us in situations like this it is only a matter of time that the population rises up. The royal family can temper it, try to contain it for a time or delay its onset, but surely it can not prevent it indefinitely, especially not through amateurish adventurism abroad such as the Yemeni thing, nor through ruthless repression at home, nor through artificially pushing the price of oil down as a tool of foreign policy while exasperating youth unemployment domestically. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. It might not be long before someone chokes on the cake.

  3. “American officials also would make it clear that such weapons should not be used against domestic protests”
    ….Now Ahmed, I know those rascals in the streets who want us gone are overpowering the police, and we are in great danger, but I gave my word to the unbelievers that I would not use those tanks and guns over there against the hoodlums who want us dead……heh. ….Just kidding Ahmed — you go get ’em.

  4. Hillary Mann Leverett, regarding Yemen:
    I think what we’re seeing is a product of Saudi disorientation and terror at a region that could become more representative in terms of its governance, more independent in terms of its foreign policy. The Saudis are trying to prevent that kind of independence in foreign policy from emerging in Yemen, and they have yet again gone down this road with the United States to a war that has no end. And it’s a disaster both for the Saudis and certainly for the Americans.”

  5. Excellent article Nabile Nakhleh, thanks.
    It appears that the Saudi king is sending a conciliatory gesture to Iran! He seems to be signaling to Iran if they stop interfering in Yemen and/or not agitating about 1 million Shiites who are working in the Saudi oil industry then in return Saudi is willing and ready to back off from the idea of deposing Assad’s regime in Syria! This idea may be a respond to Rouhani’s foreign policy of promoting a win-win strategy in his dealings with other countries! A pretty good way of testing Iran for their convictions and intentions!

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