Since King Salman took the helm of Saudi Arabia last year, the country has taken on a much more assertive stance in regional affairs. His son, Mohammed bin Salman appears to be the driving force behind this new position, leading the war in Yemen and a coalition against IS.
This prominence, combined with Salman’s advanced age and poor health has led to considerable speculation among observers of the Kingdom that he might abdicate in favour of his son Mohammed. Such a move would be a deviation from convention, because it would bypass the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. As is almost always the case with discussions about succession in the Kingdom, it is difficult to determine with any confidence whether this scenario is likely to materialise.
Nonetheless, there is a common thread to rumours that we have heard about Salman, which indicates that he is in poor health, and struggles with the day-to-day demands of leading a country. Some observers have even speculated that he effectively leaves this to his son.
His predecessor King Abdullah acted as regent for King Fahd for many years. It also seems clear that Salman strongly favours his son, who has the portfolios for defence and the economy, as well as being deputy crown prince. Indeed, Salman’s appointment of Mohammed to these roles caused some upset in the Kingdom, because he favoured his thirty-something son over older and probably more qualified candidates. It is unclear to what extent he is personally responsible for decision-making, such as a proposed IPO for national oil company Saudi Aramco, or if he relies heavily on advisors. The major practical obstacle to Salman abdicating in favour of Mohammed is current crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
One possible indicator of political instability in the Kingdom that we are monitoring for is signs of rivalry between Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Nayef. So far, we have seen little outward indication of such tensions. However, the latter has headed up interior security for many years, and seems to have a strong domestic constituency. Therefore he would probably be in a strong position to try and oppose an attempt by Salman to bypass him, should he chose to do so.
Were Salman to abdicate, he would have to issue a decree appointing his son as crown prince in place of Mohammed bin Nayef– most probably in the same day or even hour. Thus possible indicators of such a move would include princes returning from abroad en masse, or late-night meetings with the King. This kind of movement is not always reported in the press, so could well happen with little prior warning. As with Saudi succession more broadly, this adds to uncertainty. In our analysis, a Saudi Arabia led by Mohammed bin Salman would be a more unpredictable and unstable country, even though he seems prepared to introduce needed economic reforms. This is based on the Kingdom’s foreign military adventure in Yemen under his leadership, and similarly risky proposals to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Moreover, in the year since he was plucked from relative obscurity, the defence minister seems to have done little to gain substantive domestic tribal or religious backing, instead relying on those same policies to secure support at home.
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Image: King Salman; US DoD; Creative Common