There are at least two ways to look at the dramatic changes to Saudi leadership announced yesterday. One is to see this as King Salman finally setting up the long-overdue generational transition from the sons of the first king, Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa’ud, to his grandsons, as well as empowering some of the best and brightest of that next generation. It is unquestionably true that many of the men that Salman has appointed to new posts yesterday and in preceding months represent some of the most capable, best educated, and most highly-respected figures of the younger generation of Saudi princes and technocrats. It is a happy story, and one that should not be dismissed despite what I am about to tell you.
The other way to see the events in the Kingdom is that it represents a Sudayri coup. At the very least, it is a major consolidation of power by the Sudayri wing of the al-Sa’ud royal family. The Sudayris are the sons and grandsons of King Abd al-Aziz with his favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudayri. That union produced 7 sons, the largest bloc of full brothers among the dozens of sons of Abd al-Aziz. The late King Fahd was the oldest of them, but they also included the late former Defense Minister Sultan, the late former Interior Minister Nayef, and now King Salman. For decades, the Sudayris constituted an extremely powerful grouping within the royal family and during King Fahd’s reign they effectively ran the country. But their power and cohesiveness inspired sibling rivalries, and many of their half-brothers disliked their policies as much as their efforts to monopolize power.
Today, as a result of Salman’s many changes, nearly every major post in the Saudi cabinet is held by either a Sudayri or a non-royal— able technocrats like Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi or the new Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Only Prince Mitaib, the son of the late King Abdullah, remains as a non-Sudayri prince in charge of a key ministry (the National Guard). And although it was widely believed that the aged and ailing Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal was looking to step down as foreign minister— and no one can gainsay the appointment of the highly-capable Adel al-Jubeir as his successor— Sa’ud Faisal’s removal eliminates still another powerful, non-Sudayri prince from the cabinet.
Most stunning of all, the king removed Prince Muqrin bin Abd al-Aziz as the crown prince. Prince Muqrin was the last son of Abd al-Aziz in the succession chain, he was relatively young by the standards of Saudi princes (69 years old), and was reportedly picked by King Abdullah to follow Salman in part to prevent the further monopolization of power by the Sudayris. Since the formation of the Saudi state in 1932, the al-Sa’ud have never removed a crown prince. They did remove a sitting king once (Sa’ud bin Abd al-Aziz in 1964) but never a crown prince. Moreover, this unprecedented move leaves the next two princes in line of succession as Sudayris from the younger generation—Muhammad bin Nayef (55 years old) and Muhammad bin Salman (the king’s son, probably 30 years old). It means that the Sudayris could reign for another 50 years.
There are a number of reasons why this Sudayri consolidation could be of concern to the United States in addition to the fact that it is almost certainly resented by many other Saudi princes, and likely important non-royals as well. The most important of these is that in the past the Sudayris have been associated with internal and external policies that have created problems for the Kingdom. At the level of gross generalization, the Sudayris are typically associated with overspending, unchecked corruption, impious behavior, and a reliance on massive payoffs or repression to deal with domestic discontent. In the foreign policy arena, they have often favored a pro-American, anti-Iranian foreign policy, one that has been quite aggressive by Saudi standards and has risked getting the Kingdom into confrontational situations that the U.S. found unnecessary if not dangerous.
For the most part, the Sudayris now in power are from the next generation. Again, they are much better educated and more worldly than their fathers. We can all hope that they have learned the lessons of past mistakes and won’t repeat them. But there are some worrying signs already. King Abdallah steadfastly (and smartly) resisted getting directly involved in any of the civil wars on the Kingdom’s borders— Iraq, Yemen and Syria (one state removed). While the Saudis claim that they only intervened in Yemen grudgingly, they did not have to do so at all. I regard that intervention as a dangerous mistake, and I note that it happened barely four months after a Sudayri king took over from a non-Sudayri. In a similarly disquieting vein, twice now King Salman has made massive cash payouts to his constituents—a general bonus for all Saudi government workers upon his accession (and most of the Saudi workforce works for the government) and another round of bonuses for the Saudi armed forces and security services which was announced along with the cabinet changes yesterday. It is hard not to see these as the same kind of payoffs made by Roman emperors starting with Caligula to buy the acquiescence of key power bases and potential threats like the military.
Again, this is a very competent group of princes and each individual move can be easily justified by the age and ability of the incoming and outgoing office-holders. But it is worth noting the changing shape of the forest even as we admire the individual trees. At a time when Saudi Arabia is under increasing pressure from low oil prices, the rise of Salafi extremists like ISIS, and four civil wars spilling over across the Middle East— not to mention the longstanding structural problems of the Kingdom’s political, economic and social systems— a shift back to the old, dangerous policies of previous Sudayri rule could create real problems for Saudi stability in the future.