Power is shifting within the ruling Saudi elite

Power is shifting within the ruling Saudi elite
Analysis: The Saudi monarch named a new crown prince, and elevated his son to deputy crown prince Wednesday underscoring a shift in power within the ruling elite.

3 min read
King Salman (above) succeeded King Abdullah in early 2015 (Getty)
The death of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud brought into sharp focus the thorny issue of succession in the kingdom.

The death of the founder of the kingdom which bears his name, Abdul Aziz al-Saud, in 1953 left his sons contesting who was the rightful heir to the throne.

Al-Saud's sons have managed to succeed each other relatively smoothly. However, ranks of that generation, mostly in their 80's, are thinning.

Soon, a grandson of Abdul Aziz will be in line to claim the throne, which will inevitably put one branch of the family at odds with the other.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, aged 79, is late King Abdullah's half-brother. Since assuming power in January, he did not wait long before he reshuffled the cabinet and appointed his successors.

In the meantime, some of Abdul Aziz's grandsons are already queuing up for the throne, getting promoted by their fathers.

The first reshuffle 

Before the burial of King Abdullah, the new King, Salman, announced a major shakeup, seen by many as a "soft coup". 

The new king's 35-year old son, Mohamed bin Salman, was appointed as defence Miniter and general secretary of the Royal Court. 

Equally important, Salman replaced prominent Intelligence Chief Bandar bin Sultan, 66, with his deputy Yousef al-Idrisi. 

In the same reshuffle, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was named as deputy crown prince. This makes Mohammed second-in-line to the throne, after Crown Prince Moqren, 69. 

At that stage, the new king left Crown Prince and deputy prime minister Moqren, who was hand-picked by the late king Abdullah as successor to Salman, in his position.

The Second reshuffle

After the first cabinet reshuffle, Salman waited a couple of months to settle the issue of his legitimacyand reaffirm his authority.

It was a matter of time before his son, Mohammed, was given a chance to follow in his fathers footsteps to the throne.

On Wednesday, A royal decree removed Crown Prince Moqren bin Abdul Aziz bin Saud and replaced him with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. 

In the same decree, Moqren was relieved of his position as deputy prime minister.

It would be difficult to silence internal opposition if Salman's son, 35-year old Mohammed, was appointed as immediate successor, in the role of crown prince.

Therefore, bin Nayef was appointed crown prince after promising to allow Salman's son, deputy crown prince, to succeed him.

Clash of clans

King Salman is affiliated with the Sudairis, a rich and powerful clan in the House of Saud. 

Sudairis were undermined by late King Abdullah, who surrounded himself with Tuwaijris, another influential clan.

Tuwaijris are known to be highly conservative, and antagonistic to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

With their consent, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sponsored the Egyptian military's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and helped bring Sisi to power.

The remergence of Sudairis in the royal palace allowed for a Saudi-Turkish rapprochement. 

It is no coincidence that al-Sisi did not show up in Riyadh to pay condolences to the new king, in contrast with Turkish enthusiasm after the death of Abdullah. 

Abdullah's attempt to prevent collapse

King Abdullah foresaw the imminence of intra-family rivalry. So, he tried to formalise the Allegiance Council, as an institutional body that can internalise and resolve power disputes among al-Saud.

The Allegiance Council is made up of the living sons of the founder Abdul Aziz and other prominent grandsons.

The members of the council get to vote on the king and the crown prince.

The recent reshuffle will be the first real test for the council.

Saudi Arabia is also struggling with an increasingly dire security situation, as IS proves capable of hitting in Saudi's homeland.

The reshuffle includes a new dynamic and promising foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, whom the US and the Saudi King hold in high regard.

Al-Jubeir replaces Prince Saud al-Faisal, who managed Saudi Arabia's foreign policy for 40 years. 

Regardless of the new faces in the Saudi cabinet, the royal family is at a critical point in its history. An elite crisis, national security threats, regional state failures, and war in Yemen could expose the institutional fragility of the Saudi monarchy.