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The Death of Crown Prince Sultan: What next for the House of Saud?

Commentary, 24 October 2011
Middle East and North Africa
The death of the long-serving Defence Minister ushers in a long-overdue process of succession. While there may be concerns over the role of the likely Crown Prince, Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, we should not expect a massive change in direction of Saudi policy in the region.

The death of the long-serving Defence Minister ushers in a long-overdue process of succession. While there may be concerns over the role of the likely Crown Prince, Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, we should not expect a massive change in direction of Saudi policy in the region.

kingabdullahfamily  Flickr/Ammar Abd Rabbo

By Michael Stephens and David B. Roberts, RUSI Qatar

The death of Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud, the octogenarian Crown Prince and Minister of Defence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, marks the point at which the long overdue process of succession to the throne of the House of Saud can begin to take shape.

Prince Sultan's health has been the subject of much speculation for the past two years: he has been gravely ill and many doubted whether he would have been able to assume King Abdullah's role should the King have passed before Prince Sultan. 

His successor has, therefore, been known for some time now. In March 2009 the position of second Deputy Prime Minister was created for Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud; a clear indication that Nayef was the third in line to the throne.

The Succession Struggle: A foregone conclusion?

Prince Nayef is the natural choice to become Crown Prince, and, given Sultan's death, is almost certain become Saudi Arabia's next King.[1]

Firstly, as the Minister of the Interior since 1975 he, along with his son, Muhammad bin Nayef, control the exclusive loyalty of the police; a highly developed, well funded intelligence gathering apparatus; a myriad of special force units and elite counterterrorism squads; border protection forces; critical installation protection forces and the infamous religious police.

Nayef thus controls a whole sector of the Kingdom's security apparatus and his participation in all security-related discussions is necessary. Clearly highlighting his security purview, Nayef and his son took control of the Yemen portfolio, historically always the province of Sultan, over and above Sultan's son assistant Minister of Defence Khalid bin Sultan. That the Ministry of the Interior is now believed to almost exclusively govern security and political decision making with regard to Yemen is an indicator of the extent to which Nayef has been able to subsume security and foreign policy influence under his mantle.[2]

Secondly, Nayef has often served as the de facto ruler of the Kingdom during the regular health-related absences of both Sultan and Abdullah. Only last week Nayef chaired the weekly cabinet session, a role he has performed numerous times in the absence of King Abdullah who was receiving medical attention for a spinal injury. There is little resistance to Nayef having taken on this role and certainly no public indication of insubordination to Nayef's authority by any prince. Not even the renegade prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz (whose personal hostility to Nayef is well known) has opposed Nayef's assumption of this role in recent times.

Saudi Succession

The Allegiance Council

In 2006 King Abdullah created an advisory council to oversee issue of succession. Its aims were to create a formal mechanism for an inherently difficult process and to encompass more key Al Sauds in the decision making process. Specifically, this was to avoid the continued favouring of the Sudairi Seven: the sons of the late King Abdul-Aziz and Princess Hassa al Sudairi including former King Fahd, the recently deceased Sultan, Prince Nayef and Prince Salman the highly respected governor of Riyadh.

Long have Abdullah, his sons, and the Al-Faisal branch of the Saudi family struggled against the Sudairi seven. In the Allegiance Council, the power of the seven is diluted with the incorporation of a total of thirty-five princes. Abdullah for his part has built up an entire armed force wing separate to guarantee that his side of the family are not ousted or ignored: the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which is as strong, as well equipped and arguably better trained that the Saudi Royal Forces who served under the command of Prince Sultan since 1962.  

While Abdullah has done all he can to assure his side of the family's continued relevance, he is a pragmatic King who realises that Nayef is the logical choice for Crown Prince and his successor. 

The Kingdom of Nayef

Nayef has a deeply conservative reputation, a significant proportion of which is well deserved. Americans still remember Nayef as the man who refused to believe that the 11 September 2001 hijackers were mostly from the Kingdom. He has something of a fearsome reputation in the east of the Kingdom where he trucks little compromise with the Shia minority who are mostly situated there. Linked to this is Nayef's implacable attitude when it comes to Iran. Such issues make Nayef popular with the Kingdom's religious establishment and other hardliners.[3]

Abdullah too was feared to be a hardliner yet the exigencies of the job mellowed him. So too is it likely that Nayef's harder edges would be smoothed by ultimate power. For the key role of the Saudi King is to assure the stability of the Kingdom, not to pursue damaging policies domestically or internationally, no matter the religious righteousness of their origins. Indeed, this is the key lesson of the first two Saudi states, both of which failed after the al-Saud vastly overextended themselves on a religious 'mission'.

However, a Nayef Kingship may prioritise the discourse of security over softer methods of diplomacy. Nayef's attitude to the Yemen question, for example, has been to focus on direct security threats and working to neutralise them sometimes in tandem with President Saleh, sometimes not. This is in opposition to Sultan, who viewed stability in Yemen as best achieved through a complex network of patronage in which he often played rival tribes and alliances off against each other.[4]

In Bahrain, Nayef would follow Abdullah's lead and likely not allow King Hamad to make any wide-ranging structural democratic concessions to the majority Shia protestors as such a move could afford the Shia 'too much' influence. It is highly likely that the 1,100 Peninsula shield force personnel will maintain a presence in the tiny Kingdom and that Saudi Arabia would seek through the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council to maintain economic and emotional assistance to the beleaguered Al-Khalifa monarchy as low level disturbances continue to upset Bahrain's stability.

The most important question is of course what becomes of the great game between Nayef's Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tensions increase on an almost daily basis between the two regional actors, as Iran's nuclear programme continues and the struggle for influence in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria has caused both sides to engage in actions ranging from barbed accusations of the other's nefarious intent to military support. With Nayef at the helm it is even more difficult to see any meaningful de-escalation of tension with Iran as compared to Abdullah. Indeed it is prudent to expect the arms race to continue on apace and for Saudi Arabia to continue to invest massive resources in the upgrading of its missile defence systems and naval capabilities. Should Iran attain a nuclear weapon, Nayef's Saudi Arabia would surely begin the weaponisation process itself, albeit under the watchful eye of the United States, or look to buy one 'off the shelf' from Pakistan.[5]

Domestically Nayef's conservative tendencies will almost certainly have an impact on the direction of the Kingdom. Whilst unlikely to undo the moderate reforms of King Abdullah, such as the recent legislation to permit female suffrage, or swing the Kingdom in a radically socially conservative direction, one should not expect an increase in Shia civic and social participation in the Wahhabi/Salafi dominated state. Economic reforms and diversification will continue on apace, more economic and industrial cities will be constructed and Nayef will almost certainly continue with his half-brother's policy of using massive state largess as a way of quelling internal popular dissent.[6] This in combination with a ruthless and ever more efficient internal security apparatus, which by all accounts Nayef and his son have done much to expand and improve both in the human and technical domains.

The Next Generation

Sultan's passing was more of a staging post for further discussion rather than a game-changer in and of itself. Specifically, now the Kingdom is only two successions away from a likely generational shift. And considering that Nayef is in his late seventies and King Abdullah is, according to a recent Wikileak disclosure, ninety-two, such a change cannot be far away.[7]

Nayef, Abdullah and the Allegiance Council will therefore need to consider the possibility of passing the mantle of succession instead to one of Abdul-Aziz's grandsons, the majority of whom are now in their late fifties and early sixties. Nayef would most likely favour a transition of power to his younger brother Prince Salman, a Sudairi and by all accounts a competent and trustworthy individual, and at 73 years of age is still relatively young and healthy. The immediacy of the generational shift could therefore be delayed for a few years, but at some point in the next decade the new generation will need to begin positioning themselves for a run at the throne.

Currently it is the sons of Abdullah, Sultan and Nayef who are worthy of most attention by virtue of their respective commands over the three main bodies of security in the Kingdom. Whilst none at the current time possess the type of influence or widespread support necessary for a push for power, the coming years will see them inevitably jockey for influence inside the Kingdom and also for the support of the Washington consensus.[8] At the time of writing Muhammad bin Nayef is best placed of the three grandsons of Abdul-Aziz, by virtue of his reputation as shrewd counter-terrorism operator and his efficient running of the security arms of the Ministry of the Interior.

Nevertheless nothing is set in stone and one should not rule out a candidate from the al-Faisal branch of the family appearing in the coming years to challenge the three sons, particularly given the return to prominence of Prince Turki al-Faisal, the onetime Intelligence chief and Ambassador to the United States and UK.

The succession crisis in the Kingdom should therefore not overly worry Western policy makers; yet. Nayef will not radically change the Kingdom's direction, at least no more than it has currently re-orientated under King Abdullah in the post-Arab Spring world. Nor is it likely that armed struggles for power will break out between various factions of the family. The management of the succession process, although opaque, is delicately handled. Those who fall out of favour are swiftly moved away from power centres, and the chances of any one branch of the family retaining enough military and political influence to launch a coup are slim. The House of Saud is, for now at least, merely undergoing a necessary period of change and one that is long overdue.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI. 


[1] Simon Henderson 'After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia', Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy brief #96, p16 August 2009

[2] Ellen Knickmeyer. 'Trouble Down South: For Saudi Arabia Yemen's Implosion is a Nightmare', Foreign Policy, 5 July 2011

[3] 'Potential new Crown Prince seen as Hard-line, but Pragmatic', New York Times, 23 October 2011

[4] Ellen Knickmeyer. 'Trouble Down South: For Saudi Arabia Yemen's Implosion is a Nightmare', Foreign Policy, 5 July 2011

[5] Jason Burke 'Riyadh will build Nuclear Weapons if Iran gets them, Saudi Prince warns', The Guardian, 29 June 2011

[6] Bruce Reidel, 'Saudi Arabia on the brink', National Interest, 6 April 2011

[7] 08RIYADH1077, UPDATED PERSONAL INFO ON SAUDI KING, created 2008-07-13, released 2011-08-30

[8] 'Saudi Defence Sector Analysis', Dunlin, p5  December 2010

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