Death of al-Saud: Uncertain times ahead

Death of al-Saud: Uncertain times ahead
While King Abdullah's hand-picked successor will work to ensure stability, threats both domestic and foreign pose concerns for the future of the kingdom.
4 min read
23 January, 2015
King Abdullah's legacy will likely be protected by his choice of successor [Getty]

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah was not unexpected. 

He had been in failing health for several months and his condition had deteriorated in the past three weeks. And the transition to his successor, Prince Salman bin Abdelaziz, has been smooth. 

Abdullah's half-brother, Prince Miqrin bin Abdelaziz, steps into the role of Crown Prince vacated by Prince Salman's accession to the throne.

This is all according to form and follows Abdullah's wishes that nothing untoward should disturb the kingdom's stability with his passing.


Where uncertainty begins to arise is to what extent the notably austere and conservative Salman will tamper with Abdullah's legacy as a quiet reformer. There are also questions about Salman's mental health - rumours have swirled for several years that the now 78-year-old is suffering from dementia.

Given the nature of the Saudi court and the obsessive secrecy that surrounds it, such rumours are impossible to confirm, but a court source described his behaviour as "alert in the morning but deteriorating through the day", with Salman unable to focus and appearing forgetful.

Should the new king be unable to carry out his duties effectively, the most likely scenario is that Prince Miqrin would handle day to day responsibilities as crown prince, with Salman remaining a figurehead king.

That is precisely the role that Abdullah himself served for nearly a decade after his half-brother King Fahd was felled by a stroke in the mid-1990s. When Fahd died in 2005, Abdullah ascended to the throne and began his cautious liberalisation of the country.

Game of thrones

In the short term, then, it is not likely that the ruling family will squabble over the succession, certainly not in public - and whatever private feuding takes place will centre around Miqrin.

     The appointment of Miqrin, a reformist admired in the west, was a shrewd move by King Abdullah to protect his legacy.

The former intelligence chief was named deputy crown prince in April last year. Significantly, although he is a son of Ibn Saud, the first Saudi king, his mother was a concubine or slave girl of Yemeni origin. That puts him at a disadvantage.

Salman is one of the so-called Sudairi seven, sons of Ibn Saud and Hessa bint Ahmed al Sudairi. Together they form a powerful bloc within the ruling family - and the four surviving brothers, together with Salman's son, Mohammed, would all have a claim to the throne after Salman's death.

And while there are literally dozens of princes with claims of varying degrees to the Saudi throne, the ruling family and its Allegiance Council have always managed to sift through the claimants and come up with a king who satisfies the majority and soothes the disgruntled.

Salman, who has close ties to the religious establishment, may seek to put the brakes on any further reforms - but it is unlikely that he will roll back steps such as Abdullah's appointment of women to the Shura Council. 

In that context, the appointment of Miqrin, a reformist admired in the west, was a shrewd move by King Abdullah to protect his legacy.

However, the real challenges facing the new king are less about unhappy princes jockeying for position or the role of women in the kingdom and much more about the external threats Saudi Arabia now faces.

A neighbourhood in disarray

To the south, Yemen is collapsing into chaos with the rebel Houthi in the ascendancy and al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) well placed to take advantage of a rapidly deteriorating situation. AQAP has carried out attacks against the Saud family in the past, and there is every reason to believe that they pose an even greater threat now.

     The threat to the ruling Saud family may come from within the kingdom itself.

To the north, the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis) has already very publically denounced the Saud family as unworthy guardians of Islam's two holiest shrines - Mecca and Medina.

And while US-led bombing raids have stalled the momentum of the IS group, the threat to the ruling Saud family may come from within the kingdom itself.

The IS ideology holds a surprising degree of support in the country and there have been several defections of military and security services personnel to the jihadists' cause in Syria and Iraq. 

The concern will be that the military intended to protect the ruling family may, in fact, be infected with the IS virus.

The Saudi government is also shoring up Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family, while the majority Shia population there continues to demand democratic reforms. Much of the Shia community refused to participate in November's election, with their leaders calling the vote "a sham".

As that impasse continues, Shia in the oil rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, linked by a causeway to Bahrain, are advocating for change - causing further anxiety within a Saudi establishment fearful of Iran and a "Shia Arc".

Facing these sorts of challenges, the house of Saud will present a united front to their people and to the world.

But if the stories of Salman's ill health are indeed true, then Crown Prince Miqrin will have to show himself to be adept and agile in negotiating the country and the ruling family through uncharted and increasingly dangerous waters.