The Saudi succession from King Abdallah to King Salman was a model of stability. As expected, the heir apparent ascended to the throne and the third-in-line moved up to be the new Crown Prince, Muqrin bin Abd Al Aziz. Salman was quick to choose a new second deputy prime minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, who has made his reputation fighting Al Qaeda. The line of succession is now clearly established.
Salman also moved one of his younger sons, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, into two key positions, Minister of Defense and Chief of the Royal Court. At 34, Prince Muhammad is by far the youngest Saudi in a senior decision-making role. But he is the same age as his famous predecessor, Prince Sultan bin Abd Al Aziz, who became Minister of Defense in 1963 at 34 and remained in that post until becoming Crown Prince in 2011. (Salman replaced him).
A graduate of King Saud University, Muhammad has been a special adviser to his father in a number of positions for much of the last decade. He always traveled with his father and has been gate keeper to his court. He was at Salman’s side, for example, when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to Riyadh earlier this month to pay his respects to the dying Abdallah and perform the minor pilgrimage to Mecca. He has a reputation for being aggressive and ambitious, as might be expected.
Now he presides over the Royal Court, a position of immense power in an absolute monarchy — especially when the monarch has health concerns. It also makes him commander of the Royal Guard in practice. As Defense Minister, Prince Muhammad also controls the regular armed forces — a huge bureaucracy and budget which engages in massive arms purchases from America and other countries. Along with Muhammad bin Nayif (age 55) who remains Minister of the Interior, and Abdallah’s son Prince Mitab (age 62) who is National Guard Minister, Muhammad is now part of the triangle that oversees all security issues for the Kingdom.
Prince Muhammad has sought to portray himself in the Saudi media, much of which is owned by his father, as the leader of a younger generation of Saudis. He is head of a number of philanthropic groups that are youth oriented. He is thus well positioned to gain the backing of the Kingdom’s huge younger generation.
The intricacies of royal family politics in Saudi Arabia are the subject of endless speculation outside and inside the Kingdom. Prince Muhammad is sure to be the topic of much speculation to come.