Transition in the Kingdom

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor’s Note: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, the heir apparent to the throne, Nayef bin Abdulaziz passed away on June 16, 2012. Since Crown Prince Nayef’s passing, the Saudi-US Relations Information Service conducted interviews on the Saudi leadership transition with a number of distinguished specialists on Saudi affairs. Below is an interview with Brookings nonresident senior fellow F. Gregory Gause III.

[SUSRIS] Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz passed away on Saturday, June 16, after serving as Deputy Prime Minister and heir apparent since last October when long-serving Crown Prince Sultan died. It is widely assumed that Prince Salman, who followed Sultan as Defense Minister will be the next heir apparent. What are the concerns and considerations for Saudi watchers during a transition such as this one?

[Dr. F. Gregory Gause] This does not appear to be a particularly difficult transition, from the perspective of an outsider like me. Prince Salman was given the Defense Ministry, after his long career as governor of Riyadh, to some extent to give him cabinet and security responsibilities as a precursor to his move into the line of succession. It seems to me that the more open question is who becomes Minister of the Interior, one of the most important ministries, to succeed Prince Nayif.

[SUSRIS] Crown Prince Nayef served as Interior Minister since 1975. What will be the impact of his passing on that important post?

[Gause] This is the biggest question right now. The Interior Minister is the chief policeman of the country, with all the power and resources that position implies. Interior has been at the forefront of the successful struggle against Al-Qaeda in the country, that was the dominant issue in Saudi Arabia from 2003 probably through 2007, and remains the major agency through which the regime deals with the Al-Qaeda threat, both as a security issue and in terms of rehabilitation of former AQ activists.

The ministry is also central to the Saudi reaction to the Arab Spring domestically, carrying out efforts to prevent and control demonstrations and popular mobilizations. It is thus central to the ruling strategy of the regime. It will be very interesting to see who is appointed to take it over. Will it be Prince Nayif’s son, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, who has very successfully managed the counter-terrorism strategy, or perhaps a member of the elder generation? I am waiting to see.

[SUSRIS] What do we know about Prince Salman, the likely new Deputy Prime Minister, and the impact of his probable ascent to the position of Crown Prince?

[Gause] Prince Salman represents continuity. He is part of the original family coalition that backed King Faysal in his struggle for power against then-King Saud in the late 1950′s and early 1960′s. He has held the most important governorship in the kingdom, that of Riyadh, for decades before his recent move to the Defense Ministry. He is an integral part of the family’s ruling elite, not an outsider whom fate has thrust into a new position of responsibility.

[SUSRIS] The last two leadership transitions we have witnessed, Crown Prince Abdullah becoming King in 2005 and Crown Prince Nayef succeeding Crown Prince Sultan last year, were on the surface very smooth. Can you comment on the process that is in place for these changes?

[Gause] The process is completely within the upper reaches of the ruling family, and thus opaque to outsiders. It will be very interesting to see if the Allegiance Council is convened in the process of naming a new crown prince, and at what point in the process it is convened. But this is in terms of establishing precedents for future contingencies. There does not appear to me to be a candidate for the position now other than Prince Salman. This is very similar to the last two leadership transitions you mentioned — settled at the elite level within the family with very little evidence of any problems.