Royal Succession, Saudi Style

Don’t expect big changes in Saudi Arabia because King Abdullah died.

First, because his younger brother Salman was already in the driver’s seat. Second, because the al-Saud family runs the country like a family business. The Saudi king is the elected chief executive. Saudi Arabia is close to an absolute monarchy with the caveat that sovereignty rests with the al-Saud family, not the individual king.

Obviously, the elders of the family have already met in a very private majlis confirming the next king: Muqrin bin Abdulaziz. Usually, but not always he’s the next available son of the Old King (Abdul Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, also referred to as ibn Saud). But if the next oldest is judged unsuitable, they’ll pick another. That’s how they avoid succession issues and avoid idiots on the throne, a practice certain European monarchies might emulate.

The trick is they’re about out of sons. Oh, there are hundreds of grandsons. The Old King had about a hundred sons and daughters. He took full advantage of Islam’s four wives rule to cement his legacy by marrying the most available female of each just-conquered tribe. Yes, that necessitated divorcing a previous wife, but he tried to do it graciously and generously (if you follow my drift). In fact, he often had only three wives, so he would be open to the needs of diplomacy. (I can’t even type that sentence with a straight face.) Once they run out of first-generation candidates, the majlis will probably become more political. Then again, maybe not. (They’ll try to not tell.) (And that doesn’t even mention the role of the seven sons of the Old King’s favorite wife: Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi.)

The al-Sauds are among the most conservative (though not as radical as in the youth of the Old King) Moslem monarchs. They consider their protectorate of Islam’s most holy sites on the west side of the Arabian Peninsula a bigger responsibility than the sea of oil under their Eastern Provinces. Between the two they have become very powerful and very subtle.

So, the al-Sauds have moved to meet this challenge by appointing as deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, a grandson of the Old King.

Yes, the al Sauds face internal and external challenges which will topple them someday—and depending on who does the toppling and who replaces the Sauds it will be an interesting time—but not today.