Building a consensus for succession in Saudi Arabia

The Allegiance Council was created in 2006 to facilitate the transfer of power in Saudi Arabia, but its role in choosing the future king is still undefined and it is too early to gauge its effectiveness. Published in MEED, 10 October 2012

The appointment of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud as crown prince on 18 June, following the death of his brother, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, was not a surprise. His senior position in the family hierarchy and his role as defence minister meant that he was widely seen as the most likely candidate by observers.

One aspect that was a surprise, however, was the apparent lack of any involvement by the Allegiance Council. The council, which is also known as the Allegiance Commission, was established in October 2006 to decide on the identity of a new king or crown prince in the event of death or incapacity. Its membership is drawn from the sons and grandsons of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz, and it is chaired by the eldest prince, currently Prince Mishaal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.

Exercising powers

Since its establishment, it has had few opportunities to exercise its powers. However, the council was consulted when Prince Nayef became crown prince in October last year, following the death of Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz. The same was expected to happen this time, but in the end the council appears to have been bypassed. An official statement from the Saudi Press Agency on 18 June stated that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud had chosen Salman as the next crown prince and deputy prime minister.

“My understanding is that the Allegiance Council didn’t play any role,” says Professor Gregory Gause, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Vermont. “It’s entirely possible that they met and it wasn’t publicised, but my assumption is that, because we know they met for the designation of the previous crown prince, we would know if it had met this time. This undercuts a precedent and, for a young institution on its second time out, that is pretty negative.”

Others inside the country, however, suggest that the council may still have played some role, even if it was kept private.

“It’s unlikely that the Allegiance Council and Shura Council wouldn’t have had a role in the approval of Crown Prince Salman,” says one Riyadh-based analyst. “I just don’t think it’s likely that they wouldn’t have been consulted. The authorities and the ruling family are very private. It’s not just what is said; it’s also what is not said.”

The doubt cast over the involvement of the council this time round raises questions over how the decision-making process inside the kingdom may be evolving. The establishment of the Allegiance Council essentially codified the existing system of informal consultations that have long been at the heart of decision-making in the kingdom. While it did not change the system in any significant way, it at least lent a modicum of structure and formality to what are critical issues for the country.

“The institutional arrangement in Saudi Arabia was an advance because it at least presents a formal system through which these various arrangements that are made informally can be ratified,” says Gause. “If you move away from that it is a step backward in the institutionalisation of the ruling family’s role.” Trying to read the internal developments within the Saudi court is at times akin to the art of Kremlinology during the Cold War. The combination of opaque decision-making, a large cast of actors and constantly shifting alliances means the country is far harder to read than other regimes in the region and facts can be hard to establish.

The line of succession adds a further complication. Saudi Arabia follows a method known as agnatic seniority, whereby the surviving sons of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz, have succeeded to the throne in order of age, rather than it passing down from father to eldest child, as happens in other monarchies. Age is not the only factor, however, and some princes have been passed over in favour of their younger brothers or half-brothers.

Building consensus

The Saudi system can have its advantages – it seems to have helped engender a more consensual style of rule among the country’s elite, for example. However, it can also make it more difficult to move from one generation to the next.

This latter issue is becoming more significant as the current generation of leaders becomes increasingly old and frail. That situation was highlighted by the short period of time that Prince Nayef held the post of crown prince. He was appointed in October 2011, but died in June, less than eight months later.

Since then, another son of King Abdulaziz has also passed away. Prince Hazlul died while abroad on 29 September and was buried in Mecca a day later.

All of King Abdulaziz’s sons were born during the first half of the last century. The youngest, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, was born in September 1945 and is now 67. If the regime is to survive into the longer term, power will need to be transferred to the next generation, although many of the grandsons of King Abdulaziz are themselves already elderly.

The Allegiance Council should play a critical role in that process, but the identity of likely candidates among the next generation is shrouded in mystery. There has long been speculation about which of the grandsons might be best placed to step up to the role, but there is no easy way to decipher the truth.

“This is a matter that the family holds enormously tightly within its own circle,” says Gause. “Lots of people talk about it because, in a monarchy, gossip about court politics is what people trade in. But you have to remember that about 90 per cent of such gossip tends to be wrong. It’s way too early to tell who is up or down in the next generation and it could change over time. Even if you had an accurate reading today, that could change.”

National leaders

In October 2009, the US ambassador in Riyadh sent a cable to Washington about the workings of the Allegiance Commission, which gave some insight into the views of a senior US diplomat on the issue. The cable, which was titled Can the Allegiance Commission Work? was published by Wikileaks in September last year.

“It is not clear, even to Saudis themselves, how the jump to the next generation will be managed… The dearth of national figures among the next generation of Al-Saud is striking and reflects the centralisation of power and reluctance among senior princes to delegate or groom successors other than their own sons,” wrote Ambassador James Smith.

“Each branch of the family has developed or been consigned to a particular fiefdom that is difficult to grow beyond. This maintains a balance of power among the princes, but hampers the development of national leaders.”

The cable also quoted Jamal Khashoggi, the then editor-in-chief of Al Watan newspaper, as saying that in 10 years, there would be a new leader from the “new generation” of princes but “no one knows who this will be”.

A wider issue is what impact any succession might have on the stability of the country and the reform process, which has been slow, but still noteworthy under the reign of King Abdullah. The country has the benefit of huge oil and gas reserves, which have helped to protect it from the political trends evident in other parts of the region. The government can easily afford to spend money to offset potential protest movements, although its resources are certainly not infinite. The consensual nature of the political system also inhibits any sharp changes in direction by a monarch, crown prince or indeed anyone else.

Crown Prince Salman has said little in public since his appointment in June and offered few clues about his attitude to economic, social or political reforms in the kingdom. In a speech to students at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah on 30 September, he simply urged them to “commit to moderation in all their affairs and thoughts”.

Despite his taciturn approach, Salman is widely viewed as a relative moderate within the Al-Saud family. That is in contrast to his predecessor Prince Nayef, who was seen as among the more conservative figures in the regime.

Pressure for change

“Power is very top down in Saudi Arabia, but is not entirely centralised,” noted Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank in London at the time of Prince Nayef’s death. “The need to achieve some measure of consensus among senior princes is probably the main source of checks and balances on the Saudi ruler’s power. This also means the likelihood of radical change in policies is limited. The new crown prince may adopt a more reformist approach, but within the constraints and red lines of the system.”

However, there are clearly some pressures to change, whether from women agitating for basic freedoms such as the right to drive a car, or disaffected young men or women struggling to find work.

There have also been regular, if low-level, protests by Shias in the Eastern Province who complain of discrimination.

Demands for change from the educated elite in Saudi Arabia are only likely to grow stronger, particularly given the number that have travelled abroad to study or work before returning home. Pressure could also build if strong democratic governments take hold in Egypt or elsewhere, that can also claim a degree of religious legitimacy. Whoever heads up the Al-Saud family and the kingdom in the years to come faces a critical test in dealing with such pressures.

“There is always that tension between modernisation and conservatism,” says the Riyadh-based analyst. “It is not like any other kingdom.”