Since Saudi monarchs tend to live to great ages, the position of Crown Prince must be filled at all times with a viable successor. With younger-generation princes pushing from the bottom up for places in the sun, succession politics in Riyadh are highly fluid and crown princes change more than once before the monarch takes his last breath.
One of these young princes, Salman, aged 37 and son of the late Crown Prince and Defense Minister Sultan, has landed the key job of Deputy Defense Minister with de facto responsibility for the huge Saudi defense budget. He received the appointment on Aug. 6, four months after Khaled Bin Sultan was removed from this post – accused, according to unconfirmed rumors of an attempted “mutiny” against King Abdullah, and temporarily replaced by the Commander of the Navy, Prince Fahd Bin Abdullah Bin Mohammad.
The main point of this round of defense ministry purges and appointments is that this powerful stronghold remains solidly in the hands of the assertive Sudairi branch of the royal family.
Salman, the new deputy defense minister, was for six years Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security Affairs at the National Security Council.
He has a Bachelor’s degree from the King Abdel Aziz Military College.
Like many other young princes, he began his military career as a lieutenant in the Saudi Royal Air Defense Force. From 1993-2003, when his half-brother, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, served as ambassador to Washington, Salman was attached to the Saudi Military Mission in DC.
He then moved into the Saudi foreign ministry until his appointment as Bandar’s aide in the National Security Council. Bandar then maneuvered for months to get him the job of deputy defense minister.
Succession race heats up
The Salman appointment sheds important light on the kingdom’s convoluted succession process, say DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi affairs experts.
First, it shows that the late Crown Prince Sultan’s sons, especially Bandar, worked hard to keep the high-profile and remunerative post of deputy defense minister in the hands of one of Sultan’s sons.
Second, Bandar is shown to be investing great effort in installing his close kin and fellow Sudairis in top positions. His influence is also gaining in the jockeying for succession dominating Riyadh in recent years.
Many ask why Bandar himself, 64, and director of General Intelligence, National Security Adviser and King Abdullah’s point man for delicate missions, does not throw his hat in the ring as Crown Prince and next in line to the throne.
Some wonder whether it is a question of his health or perhaps his mother’s Yemeni origins; others suggest that he will yet use his current positions at the top of the administration as launching pad for a leap to the top. The royal family is still a hive of rival factions and Bandar, as leader of the Sudairi branch, is making every effort to cherish its fiefdoms.
King Abdullah, past 90, is in frail health. The royal succession battle is heating up because the health of the monarch is declining and Crown Prince Salman, aged,77, who serves as Defense Minister, is reputed to have been struck down by dementia. (Crown Prince Salman is the brother of the late Sultan, whereas the young Salman is his son.)
Picking the next crown prince from outside the Sudairi clan
The royal family is fully aware of their failing health but, in keeping with Saudi custom, the heads of the House of Saud are kept in place even when poor health prevents them from performing their duties. King Fahd for example stayed on the throne during the last nine years of his life although incapacitated by a stroke.
So if King Abdullah dies in the next year or two, Salman will nevertheless be crowned king, although the ailing monarch’s burden of government would be relegated to the next crown prince.
That position is still open and the candidates lining up
One of the names put forward is that of Prince Muqrin, 68, a younger member of the king’s generation. His appointment by Abdullah in February 2013 as second deputy prime minister, places him second in line to the throne.
Another candidate favored by Western analysts is the king’s son, Prince Mitab, 61. As commander of the National Guard, his position was upgraded this year by the establishment of a Ministry for National Guard Affairs.
Princes Muqrin and Mitab are both close to King Abdullah and belong to a royal family branch which is one of the rivals of the Sudairis.
Muqrin as a non-Sudairi is the leading candidate
Also mentioned of late is Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, Governor of the important Province of Mecca and Jeddah. He belongs to a second non-Sudairi royal branch as offspring of King Faisal and half-brother of Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. If Saud were in better health, he would certainly make a run for the post of crown prince.
Clearly, the top jobs are assigned to princes in accordance with their family affiliation rather than qualifications and ability. The infusion of young princely blood to the Saudi administration has not changed this approach. And there is no signs that it will. The various branches of the royal family have not challenged the Sudairi appropriation of key positions and fiefdoms.
It is customary to alternate the throne between non-Sudairi and Sudairi successors. Abdullah therefore comes from a rival branch, Crown Prince Salman is a Sudairi and his successor will be a non-Sudairi.
This custom has preserved stable coalition government in Saudi Arabia since the last century and kept disastrous power struggles among warring princes at bay.
In keeping with this custom, the next crown prince after Salman accedes to the throne is therefore ikely to be Muqrin.