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Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince: A Sign of Real Transition Ahead?

Commentary, 1 April 2014
Middle East and North Africa
Even though he may be 68-years-old, the appointment of Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to Deputy Crown Prince suggests that Saudi Arabia is paving the way for a careful transition of power to a younger generation of princes.

Even though he may be 68-years-old, the appointment of Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to Deputy Crown Prince suggests that Saudi Arabia is paving the way for a careful transition of power to a younger generation of princes.

Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud

In most monarchies, especially absolute ones, the ruling family is acutely aware of the need to reassure its citizens that the regime is stable. Succession struggles threaten the legitimacy to govern, sowing discord and worry amongst the general populous. In the Twenty-first century, the leadership of the House of Saud is beset by aging sons, increasing worries over succession. The appointment of relatively young Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al Saud (68) as Deputy Crown Prince therefore comes at a welcome time.

A former chief of the Kingdom’s intelligence establishment, Prince Muqrin was appointed to Second Deputy Prime Minister in February 2013, a position that is usually a strong indicator of future Kingship. But this promotion clearly left too much room for interpretation. Unlike Crown Princes Nayef and Sultan who held the same post on their way to becoming Crown Prince, Muqrin’s appointment suggested very little. The most it seemed to indicate was a possible Prince Regent role for Muqrin while younger family members rose to power. But even that was perceived to be over-estimating his career path, and few in the Kingdom ever thought he could rise so high as to become a future Custodian of the two Holy Mosques.

But the promotion to Deputy Crown Prince all but clears away this confusion, and barring a catastrophic loss of position in the family, Muqrin will be King of Saudi Arabia after his ailing half brothers King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman have passed away.

Although sending signals about succession is primarily designed to placate the concerns of Saudi citizens, it cannot be denied that the timing of the announcement a day ahead of the visit of US President Barack Obama is interesting. Whilst there is a tendency among ‘Riyadhologists’ to over read every Saudi wave of the hand and photo opportunity as significant, there is a message here that the Saudis are sending to the outside world and it should not be ignored.

Despite the fondness inside the Washington beltway for Princes Turki al Faisal and Bandar bin Sultan, Mohammed bin Nayef has for the last decade been the star of the show. Rarely is an Interior Minister granted an audience with the American President as Bin Nayef was in January 2013, and it is no secret that those in the security world see him as a trusted ally who has worked hard to combat Al-Qa’ida in the Kingdom and now leads a more controlled policy on Syria following the excesses of Prince Bandar.

Muqrin’s promotion puts a dampener on the hopes of DC elites  who have set their stall out for bin Nayef.  For now, the Kingdom will stay in the hands of the older generation, and frustratingly for Kingdom watchers, ensuring  once again that the decision to hand power to a younger generation of princes is put off for a little longer. With the region being in a state of high insecurity, the ruling house is buying itself a few more years, possibly until calmer waters appear before tough domestic decisions have to be made.

The message is simple, the House of Saud knows best how to rule its Kingdom and no one else. 

How Prince Muqrin Stacks Up

Friendly, with a good sense of humour, Muqrin is an extremely popular member of the royal family. Foreign diplomats and businessmen rarely have a bad word to say about the man. In Saudi Arabia more widely, he is considered one of the more popular members of the family and his increasing role in Saudi political life has been for the most part well received.

He is known to be a good palace operator, ensuring the day-to-day business of government is taken care of, and keeping the disparate powers centres of the royal family tied closely to the regime’s core. Even though he is one of the many sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdul Aziz, Muqrin is largely unencumbered by the issues of being part of the Sudairi or the Faisal side of the family. Thus Muqrin is the best choice to be the arbiter of power shifts amongst the younger members of the family in coming years, being as he is free of the baggage of fekhitha (sub-tribe) politics.

Muqrin is somewhat of a liberal on social issues, and whilst he has done much to engage with the country’s powerful religious establishment in the past year he is certainly no public champion of the conservative cause. Recently chastened by King Abdullah’s decree to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment and activists must tread carefully. Populist clerics such as Mohsen al Awajy and Mohammed al Arifi have both been called to account for expressing pro-Brotherhood stances in recent months. But Muqrin’s anti-Brotherhood drive has stemmed from the will of the King, and Saud al Faisal who have driven the Kingdom to seek out its own interests at the expense of old alliances, and while Muqrin has been involved in the decisions he is not the enforcer.

There is little to suggest he commands influence over Saudi Arabia’s notorious religious police in the way that his elder half brother Nayef once did. Therefore when Muqrin becomes King he will need to work hard on cementing his relationships with the religious Sheikhs, relying upon Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef to help keep the hand of the state on the religious police and their occasional excesses. A more assertive clerical establishment under his rule is very possible.

Foreign Policy

On issues of foreign policy Muqrin is largely cut from the same cloth as his brothers, and he is in agreement with other senior princes that Saudi Arabia must seek to assert its own interests in a region beset by instability and a retreating United States. He possesses a deep suspicion of Iranian intent in the region, and is none too fond of Iraqi President Nouri Al Maliki who is viewed almost unanimously in Riyadh as a Persian stooge. Prince Muqrin’s position on the Bahrain and Syria questions are again a product of consensus: Syria must not remain in the hands of Bashar al Assad, but neither must it become a new haven for jihadist terror which has the potential to blow back inside Saudi Arabia’s borders.

A trusted long time confidante of King Abdullah, Muqrin will not fall far from the tree, and his leadership, although he is certain to be more open in style than his predecessors. Muqrin might be just what the Kingdom needs to prepare it for a transfer to a younger generation of princes. Whenever Muqrin does ascend to the throne of Saudi Arabia, it will most likely be under his rule and with the assistance of the Allegiance Council that a transfer to the next generation of princes will come.

 

Author

Michael Stephens
Associate Fellow

Michael Stephens was the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies. He joined RUSI’s London office in September 2010, first in the Nuclear... read more

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