Succession in Saudi Arabia: Salman’s Ascension Promises Continuity at a Time of Regional Crisis

The announcement of King Abdallah’s death puts Saudi Arabia in the hands of his designated successor, Crown Prince Salman.

Salman, born on December 31, 1935, is also defense minister and has been chairing cabinet meetings for several months and handling almost all foreign travel responsibilities for the monarchy since he became the heir in 2012. He has visited China, Japan, India, Pakistan, the Maldives and France since becoming crown prince after the death of his predecessor, Prince Nayif.

Salman was governor of Riyadh province for 48 years. When he became governor in 1963, Riyadh had 200,000 inhabitants — today it has more than seven million. Salman presided over this remarkable transformation with a record for good governance and a lack of corruption. Since most of the royal princes and princesses live in Riyadh, he was also the family sheriff, ensuring any transgressions were dealt with smoothly and quietly, with no publicity.

Salman also oversaw the collection of private funds to support the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s, working very closely with the Kingdom’s Wahhabi clerical establishment. In the early years of the war —before the U.S. and the Kingdom ramped up their secret financial support for the anti-Soviet insurgency — this private Saudi funding was critical to the war effort. At its peak, Salman was providing $25 million a month to the mujahedeen. He was also active in raising money for the Bosnian Muslims in the war with Serbia.

Salman’s sons include the first Muslim astronaut, Prince Sultan, and the governor of Medinah, Prince Faysal. Another son, Prince Khaled, is a fighter pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force and led the first RSAF mission against Islamic State targets in Syria last year. The family controls much of the Saudi media.

Salman has his own health issues and has had a stroke. His successor was announced in February 2013 to ensure continuity. Prince Muqrin, who until now served as second deputy prime minister, was born on September 15, 1945 and was educated at the Royal Air Force College in England before becoming a pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force. Later, he was governor of Medinah province and then head of Saudi intelligence.

Abdallah, Salman and Muqrin are sons of the modern Kingdom’s founder, Abdelaziz Ibn Saud, who had 44 recognized sons. The survivors and their heirs constitute the Allegiance Council, which Abdallah created in 2007 to help choose the line of succession. In practice, it has only ratified the king’s decisions after the fact.

Muqrin is widely believed to be the last capable son of Ibn Saud. So if and when Muqrin ascends to the Crown Prince position, the Kingdom will face the unprecedented challenge of picking a next-in-line from the grandsons of Ibn Saud. That will raise questions of legitimacy not faced in the last century of Saudi rule.

Abdallah has been the de facto ruler of the Kingdom since King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995; he became king a decade later when Fahd passed away. A progressive reformer by Saudi standards, Abdallah gave the Kingdom 20 years of stability. Salman is likely to provide continuity. The House of Saud values family collegiality and harmony highly. The two previous Saudi kingdoms in the 18th and 19th centuries were wracked by internal family squabbles, which their foreign enemies exploited.

With the Arab world facing its worst crisis in decades the royals will want to present an image of stability and strength. This is especially true with the collapse of the pro-Saudi government in Yemen, which will be Salman’s first crisis.