By Robert Mason

With the death of Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, after a period of illness at the age of 80, comes the uncertainty of succession planning in Saudi Arabia and from the relative political orientations of those expected to occupy his position.

Prince Naif’s position as interior minister since 1975, and more recently as Crown Prince from October 2011, has been marked by security and conservatism. After initially dismissing Saudi involvement in 9/11, he was responsible for the efficacy of the Kingdom’s internal War on Terror which contributed to his high profile throughout the 2000s. He issued women with their own ID cards in 2001 giving them more autonomy in financial and legal transactions, but also authorized the arrest of 11 petition figureheads who launched the ‘Riyadh Spring’ in 2003. They were released by King Abdullah in 2005 but human rights organizations estimate that there are thousands of other political prisoners who remain in jail.

Since 2005, there have been a tranche of growing internal challenges for the Al Saud to consider. Key amongst them is a greater assertion of women’s rights (notably the Women2Drive protests of 2011) and political reform movements led by youth whose aspirations are to varying degrees supported by demands found in other Arab Uprisings. Whilst these are still being worked out, the newly elected Crown Prince, now selected as the 76 year-old brother Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, (the current Defense Minister), can expect some resistance from Saudis who perceive tradition in the succession planning at the expense of their own voices.

The alternatives were likely to have included Prince Khalid al Faisal, the 72 year-old governor of Mecca; the most senior member of the Royal family after Prince Salman. There is also King Abdullah’s son, Prince Miteb, commander of the National Guards; Prince Khalid bin Sultan, Deputy Defence Minister; and Mohamed bin Naif, who is 52 and as Assistant Interior Minister for security affairs oversaw the campaign against al- Qaeda. The latter is tipped to become the next interior minister, along with Ahmed bin Abdulaziz who has been deputy interior minister since the mid-1970s. One of them could soon be the first Crown Prince from the third generation.

Prince Salman is a political moderate, who, as Defence Minister, has attended meetings with Cameron and Obama, and whose urban development experience as an administrator of Riyadh spans five decades. He is therefore well placed to oversee large scale investments into education and healthcare currently underway and avert future criticism of the government, such as during the Jeddah floods in 2011 when youth groups were able to respond more effectively than some government agencies.

Despite his individual preferences, the system is likely to ensure that core policies remain consistent. Although the structural limitations to power provide much needed checks and balances in the Saudi state system, they also restrain and constrain new solutions to policy imperatives. Those already on the table include extending existing reforms, including limiting the role of government whilst including marginalized segments of society; increasing the pace of structural change to facilitate decision making; and increasing economic gains to improve the standard of living for all.

In the short term these issues have been complicated by regional rivalry with Iran, fears that al-Qaeda may become resurgent though Yemen, the internal sectarian conflict in Syria and Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in using northern Lebanon as a springboard against the Assad regime. They are also complicated by the enduring relationship between the Al Saud and Ulama, an area which Prince Salman is expected to operate well in.

In the medium term, once the Arab Uprisings have played out, apart from improving succession planning, the Saudi political elite should supplement a system preoccupied with political, economic and social stability with greater flexibility, public response and a raft of new policy initiatives. These could include revamping Saudi participation in the MEPP, drawing on the experience, energy and fresh thinking of the third generation to promote alternatives to the current impasse in the Israel – Palestine conflict.

As illustrated by other periods in Saudi foreign policy assertiveness, the issue will remain directly linked to the price of oil. Higher revenues will simultaneously fund the national budget, contribute to its swing status in OPEC and enable consolidation at all levels of government, including providing greater autonomy for the new leadership.

Robert Mason is a final year PhD candidate in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. He spent part of 2011 as a Research Fellow in the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.


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