Succession In Saudi Arabia: King Salman Assumes Throne Upon King Abdullah’s Passing

This post has been revised on January 23rd to reflect key changes in the Saudi government following several decrees announced by new King Salman, namely the move to appoint his nephew, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, as Deputy Crown Prince and second deputy prime minister, formally establishing a grandson of Ibn Saud in the line of succession.

Three weeks after he was hospitalized for pneumonia, Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz, age 90, died in the early morning hours of January 23rd Riyadh time, according to a statement issued by the Saudi royal court.  As expected, his successor to the Saudi throne is his half-brother, 79-year-old Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz. As mentioned in my previous post about Saudi succession following the late king’s hospitalization, the throne returns to the powerful Sudairi line with the ascension of King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz. Upon assuming the throne, King Salman immediately named his half-brother Prince Muqrin Bin Abdul-Aziz as his Crown Prince and heir.

And, in a surprise move for the traditionally cautious Saudi regime, King Salman appointed his nephew, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, as Deputy Crown Prince and second deputy prime minister in one of six decrees the new monarch issued on January 23rd. This bold step ensures that the 55-year-old Prince Mohammed, a grandson of founder Ibn Saud and another member of the Sudairi branch, is in place to one day become King and eliminates speculation about the future of governing in the OPEC country presumably for decades to come. Prince Mohammed, who had been named Interior Minister in November 2012, had been perceived as one of the leading contenders in the line of succession among the next generation of Saudi princes.

The smooth succession of Crown Prince Salman to the throne upon King Abdullah’s death is not surprising as it had been well-choreographed and intended to signal continuity in leadership and to reassure global oil markets about stability in the world’s largest crude exporting nation. Defense Minister Prince Salman had been named Crown Prince and deputy prime minister in June 2012, following the death of his brother, Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdul-Aziz. And, in March 2014, King Abdullah appointed his half-brother, 69-year-old Prince Muqrin Bin Abdul-Aziz—the youngest surviving son of founder Ibn Saud—as Second Crown Prince (a new position) and second deputy prime minister.

Because of the intense jockeying for power among the sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud, the position of second deputy prime minister—traditionally the indicator of who is next in line behind the Crown Prince—had remained vacant for more than two years between the time that Prince Nayef had been named Crown Prince in October 2011 and King Abdullah appointed Prince Muqrin as second deputy prime minister and Second Crown Prince early last year. That King Salman moved so quickly to appoint Prince Mohammed to that post as well as designate him Second Crown Prince suggests that this had been in the works and that Prince Mohammed had the blessing of the inner circle of leadership. It also means that the Sudairis have extended their powerful reach into the next generation of Saudi governing.

In another important decree he issued, King Salman appointed his son, 34-year-old Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, as the country’s new defense minister, the job the new King had previously held since 2012. King Salman also named Prince Mohammed as chief of the royal court, replacing Khaled Al-Tuwaijri, who had been a key advisor to King Abdullah. King Salman also decreed that all other cabinet positions would remain unchanged. The cabinet had just experienced  a major overhaul by King Abdullah in early December, which left long-serving Oil Minister Ali Naimi in place.

Though oil prices have jumped on the news of King Abdullah’s passing, this is likely only a temporary boost. Indeed, oil markets should not expect to see a sudden and dramatic shift in current Saudi strategy regarding its oil policy or OPEC’s agenda as the Kingdom is in the throes of a calculated production push and price war to gain back market share that is just starting to see results that Riyadh wants.

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