from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The al-Saud Do It Again

January 24, 2015

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In 2001 to 2003, after the 9/11 attacks, more and more analysts predicted the demise of the House of al-Saud. I recall classified intelligence analyses saying this, and a good example of the journalism of the time is "The Fall of the House of Saud" by Robert Baer (a former intelligence officer) in The Atlantic. The last line of that piece was "sometime soon, one way or another, the House of Saud is coming down."

But the al-Saud pulled themselves together fast and decimated al-Qaeda in the kingdom. All the dire predictions were wrong. Still, it was clear that their model for royal succession was coming under increasing strain. That model saw the throne pass from one son of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abd-al Aziz (1876-1953), to another, from brother to brother. As logic suggests, sooner or later that means from one very old man to another. Surely when it came time to go to the next generation, those who predicted chaos claimed, things would fall apart. There was no mechanism for choosing among the many princes in the next generation, grandsons of the founder. Upon the death of King Abdallah, then, there would be vast internal strife. The Sultan branch control the army, the Abdallah branch control the national guard, and there could even be violence. All those predictions were wrong.

Once again this past week the al-Saud have shown their remarkable ability to hang together. When King Abdallah died the crown prince instantly became king and the deputy crown prince became crown prince. Far more strikingly, the move to the next generation was also immediate and untroubled: Mohammed bin Nayef, a grandson of the founder, was named deputy crown prince and he will become crown prince when King Salman (who is 79) dies. MbN, as he is known in the West, is in fact generally regarded as the smartest and most effective member of his generation, and has served as deputy Minister of the Interior and then Minister. Assuming natural life spans, because Mohammed bin Nayef is 55 the succession is now in place for about thirty years.

Saudi Arabia faces many grave internal and external challenges, but the smoothness of this personal and generational transition suggests that the royal family is not only intent on remaining in control but has the mechanisms and talent to do so.

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