Analysis: Saudi Arabia’s royal transition to the next generation deferred (BBC Monitoring, 07/02/2013)

The passing, within eight months, of two consecutive crown princes, along with the widely reported failing health of current Crown Prince Salman, have accelerated the course of royal succession in Saudi Arabia. Growing concerns about King Abdallah’s own health after several back operations have also accentuated the debate over when power will be handed over to the next generation. Abdallah’s recent reshuffling of key ministerial portfolios and changing of regional governors are seen as steps towards major structural changes in the Kingdom’s executive branches as well as shifting sensitive posts to the second generation of the founder’s male descendants. Yet the appointment of his younger half-brother Miqrin Bin-Abd-al-Aziz to the post of second deputy prime minister, largely perceived as « crown-prince-in-waiting » and even potential ruler, has postponed the transfer of power to the next generation. It has been argued that Abdallah may not yet trust the « youngsters » with such a sensitive role in such turbulent times. Abdallah moved to create an Allegiance Council in 2006, reportedly in an attempt to outflank the Sudayri Seven, the powerful group of full-brothers that has dominated the government for the past forty years. The Council will be responsible for instituting a royal succession process that is more collegial at the end of Abdallah’s reign, by approving the next king and crown prince. As the last king who has the absolute privilege of choosing his successor, it could also be argued that Abdallah chose to remain loyal to the tradition of passing the throne horizontally, in this case to his youngest half-brother.

Who is Prince Miqrin?

The youngest of Ibn Sa’ud’s surviving sons, Miqrin was born in 1945. A former air force officer trained in Britain, he served in the Saudi Air Force and later became governor of the Ha’il and Medina regions. He has also served as Director of the General Intelligence Service, where his responsibilities included managing the Afghan and Pakistani portfolios. Miqrin was the king’s special envoy to Damascus in 2009 and was appointed adviser and special envoy of the king between July 2012 and January 2013.

He is said to be interested in arts, literature, astronomy and agriculture and to be liberal on social issues. He is highly interested in e-government and using technology in administration and was the first to organize a conference on Information Technology and National Security in 2007. In an interview after his appointment, he « confirmed that efforts will continue in earnest to bring about the reform sought by the king and crown prince ». As such, he is likely to continue the policy of slow and cautious reform undertaken by Abdallah.

Regarding the inter-family and regime issues, Miqrin is reported as neutral towards the Sudayri-Abdallah rivalry as well as other tribal and factional competitions. His links to and influence on the powerful clergy are unknown, however, despite his past as governor of Medina region, so it remains to be seen how relations with them will develop.

Moving to the « grandsons generation »

Although his appointment does not answer the question that everybody is asking: « who will rise to be king from the next generation of the al-Sa’ud? », it does allow Abdallah to secure continuity of the reforms and allow for a smooth transition. Competition among the grandsons has to be referred, at least for the time being, in order to address the country’s urgent problems without jeopardising stability. It is reportedly with this in mind that Abdallah also recently trusted some senior younger princes with sensitive posts and in sensitive regions. Late Prince Nayif’s son Muhammad was appointed minister of interior in November 2012 – one of the first of his generation to be awarded a senior ministerial post after he was credited with the success of domestic counter-terrorism operations. Mit’ib, the king’s son, has been entrusted with commanding the National Guard. Bandar bin Sultan, former ambassador to the US and current head of the Intelligence Service has gained prominence during the years spent in Washington maintaining the important but sometimes difficult relations between the two countries.

The reshuffling of governors of sensitive provinces can also be seen under the light of structural changes aiming to bring well educated royals to key posts. Sa’ud Bin-Nayif’s appointment as governor of the crucial Eastern region points towards firmer action in the security field of its oil facilities and the stability of a region with a Shi’i majority. Furthermore, Prince Faysal Bin-Salman who was appointed governor of the Medina region, holds an Oxford University PhD in Saudi – Iranian relations and has already established his presence in the fields of business and media.

The family above all

Whoever the next king is, he will have to navigate troubled waters, both internally and on the international arena. The repercussions of the Arab spring on the Arabian Peninsula have been felt in the neighbouring states, while the Gulf Cooperation Council has struggled with fears of regional instability. Although it is unlikely that any future leader would deviate from the cornerstones of the Saudi foreign policy – strong relations with the US, stability of the oil market and the position towards Iran, it is in the domestic arena that ideas of how to rule may differ. The issues of Islam and the clergy in the society as well as growing voices of dissent, either liberal or religious, could be dealt with in various ways depending on whether the leader is conservative or liberal. Furthermore, he would have to address the needs of a young population struck by unemployment, and which increasingly interacts through social media and speaks out about reforms and rights. All these questions notwithstanding, it should be remembered that for the Saudi ruling family, the importance of regime stability and family unity are sacrosanct. Nothing would matter more than a smooth transition, and Miqrin’s appointment makes more sense in this context. The last thing the ruling family wants in the coming crucial phase is a power struggle in the style of the Sa’ud – Faysal struggle in the 1950s. The collective memory of the dynasty is strong enough to put regime stability above all.

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