Will Saudi Arabia’s King Salman abdicate?

U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX36TTB

This week, King Salman abd al Aziz al Saud fired his crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN), and elevated his favorite son, Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), to be the heir apparent. No king had ever fired a sitting crown prince before, but Salman has now done it twice in just two years. In fact, Saudi Arabia has had six crown princes in the last six years: two died in office (Sultan and Nayef), one became King (Salman), two were appointed and then fired (Muqrin and MBN), and now MBS in the heir apparent. It’s a study in transition, disorder, and discontinuity—not stability and order. What was once a very predictable royal family line of succession has become unpredictable.

Family affair

The line of succession in the kingdom has moved laterally among the sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, Ibn Saud, for over 60 years. Salman is the end of the line of kings who could trace their legitimacy to Ibn Saud directly. MBS is going to have to establish his own legitimacy at a time when the kingdom faces an acute economic challenge from low oil prices and the region is in enormous turmoil. The Saudi royal family are survivors, but they are in very stormy weather.

The question now arises: Will the king abdicate the throne and turn power over to the son he clearly trusts? Serious newspapers have raised the possibility. King Salman has already given his son unprecedented power. His nickname is Mr. Everything because he has been given control of the military, the economy (including the oil industry), and even control of the entertainment business. He has been the de facto foreign minister for the last two years, conducting all the important foreign policy issues and visits, including setting up President Donald Trump’s historic visit to the kingdom. He will presumably represent Saudi Arabia at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg.

Salman is 81 and suffers from pre-dementia. The state of his health is a closely guarded secret. He has been very busy this year, with a month-long trip to Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, China, and Japan, plus attending the Arab summit in Jordan, as well as hosting Trump and 50 Muslim leaders. So he, apparently, is capable of being in power for some time to come. His brothers have often lived into their 90s.

Neighborhood challenges

But the king also knows how demanding a job he has. Low oil prices have made the economy weak. The region is in turmoil.

The war in Yemen that he and his son recklessly and impulsively began is a costly quagmire with no end in sight. The two and a half years-old war in Yemen is his signature policy initiative. The Saudis are bogged down in a quagmire with enormous consequences for the people of Yemen. For Yemenis, the war has brought mass starvation and malnutrition. Cholera has broken out. A child dies every ten minutes as a consequence of the war. Seven million people are at acute risk. The United Nations has called the crisis the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

And the son is also behind the Saudi quarrel with Qatar. The Gulf Cooperation Council is broken into hostile camps. The Saudis have now produced 13 demands that would reduce Qatar to being a satellite of the kingdom.

Big questions looming

Thus, there is speculation that Salman will retire, abdicate, and turn power over to his son. There is precedent. King Saud gave up the throne in 1964. But Saud did so literally at the point of a tank barrel after a decade long power struggle with his brother Faysal. Only when the powerful clerical Wahhabi establishment and the military turned on Saud did he go off to exile in Cairo. Nothing like that scenario is in the cards today. It also shows just how hard it is to remove a king even when he is clearly a failure.

But the process of succession is incomplete today. Salman has not named a successor to the post of deputy crown prince that his son held. There is no rule that requires a deputy crown prince if the king is fit. King Abdullah kept it open for some time after he ascended to the throne. It is also very unlikely Salman will pick someone older than Muhammad bin Salman. Age still matters in the Saudi system. There is no obvious younger twenty-something prince ready for the number three slot. You can leave it open for the meantime, but not if you intend to turn power over to your number two. So, the necessary predicate to abdication is for the king to choose the deputy crown prince and thus the putative successor to his son.

The royal decree that ousted MBN had some vague language about ensuring that the royal line of succession should not be confined to one branch of the House of Saud. The current line up of father and son is supposed to be a one-off, not to be repeated. Of course, kings can change decrees at their pleasure. It’s not a strong constraint.

So watch this space. If the king leaves the deputy crown prince job vacant, the odds of his abdication are very low. He could reign for years and let his son govern. Perhaps for a decade. If he does fill it, an unpredictable succession could be even more complicated.