Saudi Prince Mohammed’s elevation to interior minister augurs start of generational change

Although Suffragio covers mostly countries where democratic elections feature prominently in national politics, this month’s Chinese transition reminds us that although some countries do not have elections, they most certainly have politics.

That’s true in Saudi Arabia, where last week we saw the signs of the first transition of power to a new generation, the grandchildren of Ibn Saud — or King Abdulaziz — with the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as interior minister on November 5.

The current Saudi king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is Abdulaziz’s 10th son, and has governed since 2005, but has really effectively been the de facto Saudi leader since the previous king’s stroke in 1995.  The current Saudi crown prince (heir to the throne) is Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Abdulaziz’s 25th son.

Prince Mohammed (pictured above) replaces Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, himself Abdulaziz’s 31st son (allegedly!).

But Abdullah is 88 years old, Salman a relatively sprightly 75 years old, and Ahmed is 70, and the once-thriving set of Abdulaziz’s sons has thinned over the years, leading to increased speculation about how the next generation of the House of Saud will begin to assume power.  The next generation of Saudi leadership will face huge challenges, not least of which how to provide employment opportunities to young Saudis, deal with calls for political reform in the era of the ‘Arab Spring,’ and diversify an economy that remains too dependent on oil — and that’s before the trickier foreign policy issues presented by a United States that will brook no further Saudi-grown terrorist attacks, a Yemen at the south of the Arabian peninsula that’s becoming a chaotic terrorist haven, and Syria, a close Saudi ally, descend further into a bloody civil war.

Prince Mohammed had served as assistant interior minister since 1999, and he’s made headlines as a relatively modern Saudi royal — U.S. and other officials have applauded his efforts in attacking home-grown terrorism within Saudi Arabia, and he was in 2009 himself injured in a suicide attack.  he’s seen as somewhat more reformist than the current ruling generation, but no one really knows where his true passions lie.

The director of the Eurasia Group‘s Middle East practice, Crispin Hawes wrote in Foreign Policy on Friday that the move may presage the elevation of Khalid Al Faisal Al Saud, a son of the late King Faisal, to become second deputy prime minister and accordingly, second in line to the throne (after Salman, the crown prince):

Abdullah seems intent on defining a long-term plan for the succession in an effort to prevent the kingdom from instability if, as is possible, there is a rapid series of deaths among the current and elderly ruling generation. The transition to the generation of Mohammed and Khaled al-Faisal, grandsons of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and modern Saudi Arabia’s founder, has been the subject of speculation for years. Faisal is in his early 70s, only a few years younger than Salman, but the move is a very significant one.

Prince Khalid is currently the governor of Mecca province, Saudi Arabia’s most populous province and the home of its chief port Jeddah (and of, course, the great pilgrimage city of Mecca itself).  Like Prince Mohammed, Khalid enjoys favor from both conservative and relatively liberal members of the House of Saud.

Some background is in order, because the Saudi succession is a complex business.

King Abdulaziz, then still known as just Ibn Saud, first conquered Riyadh (the homeland of the Saud family) in 1902.  He fought in concert with the Allied powers during World War I against the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Arabia at the beginning of the 20th century), and consolidated power in 1932 to create the modern state we know today as Saudi Arabia.  As such, Ibn Saud / King Abdulaziz is generally accepted as the founder of the current kingdom.  With the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in 1938, and the wide-scale extraction of oil beginning in the 1940s, the Saudi grip over the Arabian peninsula has been relatively secure, financed by vast oil wealth, and since Abdulaziz’s death, each successive Saudi king has been one of his many, many sons — at least 37 and possibly 45 or more.

Abdulaziz’s kingdom has been ruled by one of his many sons to this day, which means that the Saudi leadership has become increasingly geriatric

Upon Abdulaziz’s death in 1953, he was succeeded by his second-oldest son, Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (or, simply, King Saud).  His reign was a troubled one, plagued by lavish spending that nearly bankrupted the kingdom (despite its oil-fueled largesse) and sparring with his brother, Abdulaziz’s third son, Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.  The feud ended in 1964, when Faisal deposed Saud and assumed the throne himself.  Faisal is remembered for having put the kingdom’s financial footing on solid ground, developing modern infrastructure and instituting the first real welfare state in the kingdom, but was assassinated by his nephew, a prince also named Faisal, in 1975.

Abdulaziz’s fifth son, Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ruled from just 1975 to 1982, and Abdulaziz’s eight son, Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ruled from 1982 to 2005, although as noted above, Abdullah has essentially been the de facto Saudi ruler since 1995.

Fahd is notable for being one of seven full brothers who shared as a mother Hassa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi — those seven and their children form a powerful group within the House of Saud, the ‘Sudairis.’  Only four of the original seven Sudairis are still alive, including Salman (the current crown prince) and Ahmed (now the former interior minister).  Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who was formerly interior minister and crown prince briefly from October 2011 to June 2012, was Prince Mohammed’s father, which makes Mohammed a Sudairi and, notably, keeps the interior ministry within the power of the Sudairis.

In contrast, Prince Khalid is not a Sudairi.

Today, Saudi Arabia is a conservative bulwark in the Middle East, though with just over 28 million people, it has less than half the population of Egypt — and Saudi nationals comprise just about 16 million of the kingdom’s population, with the rest expatriates or immigrants with few rights.  Saudi Arabia is a largely Sunni kingdom, and it’s the center of many of Islam’s holiest sites, such as Mecca and Medina, but also as a hotbed for more radical forms of Islam, such as Wahhabism and Salafism — indeed, the House of Saud elevated Wahhabism throughout the kingdom when it consolidated power in Arabia.  Although it’s where some of the most extreme radical Islamic terrorists have originated (including 15 of the original 19 Sept. 11 terrorists), the Saudi kingdom has long been a key strategic U.S. ally in the Middle East, from the end of World War II, through the Cold War and today.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest petroleum-exporting country, which has led to a relatively higher standard of living for most Saudi nationals and a relatively generous welfare state, but the country is nonetheless one of the most autocratic regimes in the world with no true form of democracy or liberal concept of human rights — the country has not adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Economic Intelligence Unit ranked it the seventh least-democratic state in its 2011 democracy index report — making it marginally more autocratic than Iran or Syria.

Saudi women, in particular, have relatively even fewer rights — they are required to have a male relative as a ‘guardian,’ are restricted in their rights to own and inherit property, initiate a divorce, travel, enter into certain professions or studies, must always wear special clothing, sit in special designated areas in public restaurants and are not permitted to drive vehicles.  Saudi Arabia ranks 131st out of 135 countries for gender disparity, for example, in the World Economic Forum’s 2012 gender gap report.

Furthermore, despite a young and restless population, the Saudi government has successfully satiated enough citizens with laving spending on unemployment benefits, other handouts and high public-sector wages to avoid the kind of tumult that’s engulfed Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during the ‘Arab Spring’ that began nearly two years ago.  The Saudi royals, for example, made common cause with Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the Sunni king of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, by providing military and financial support to put down public demonstrations in the small Shi’a-majority country this year and earlier in 2011.

With the example of the feud between Saud and Faisal in the 1950s still within the collective memory of the still-ruling Saudi leaders, the kingdom seems determined to effect a seamless, if long-delayed transition to Ibn Saud’s grandchildren.

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