On April 29, Saudi state media reported that King Salman issued a series of royal orders proclaiming, among some minor ministerial changes, an overhaul of the al-Saud’s line of succession. Specifically, Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz was relieved from his post and replaced with interior minister and counterterrorism chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Even more significantly, Salman’s son, Mohammad bin Salman al Saud, 34, will act as Deputy Crown prince, making him second-in-line to the throne. Virtually unknown in the West before his father’s ascension to the throne in January, Mohammad has already had a visible role in Salman’s inner circle—as Defense Minister, he has lead the ongoing Saudi incursion in Yemen. Bin Nayef has long been allied with Western governments on antiterrorism and security, and his elevation, coupled with Mohammad’s, indicates Salman’s interest in continuing an emboldened Saudi regional policy as US interest in the region apparently wanes.
Bin Nayef’s new place at the top of the line of succession—to which the kingdom’s senior princes swore loyalty Wednesday morning—signals a departure from royal protocol in that bin Nayef will be the first prince to ascend the throne who is not himself a son of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz al Saud. A relatively young 55, bin Nayef’s place in the succession bypasses dozens of older princes, moves the monarchy into a new generation, and enables Salman to maintain the counterterrorism credentials essential to Saudi Arabia’s internal stability as well as its cooperation with Western countries against common enemies like ISIS and al Qaeda. Despite the bin Nayef’s security-related acumen, however, Saudi watchers have noted that his appointment signals little in the way of human rights-related progress in the highly conservative kingdom. Ultimately, while the choice of bin Nayef as Crown Prince means that a new generation of Saud’s will take the top job, and will do so at a relatively young age, (Abdullah ascended the throne at 80, Salman at 78) bin Nayef is a known quantity both to Saudi and world leaders.
Though Salman’s choice of bin Nayef as Crown Prince was at least somewhat predictable, the rapid ascent of Mohammad from unknown figure to wartime Minister of Defense and then, concurrently, to Deputy Crown Prince, is unprecedented for a number of reasons. For one, it’s exceedingly rare for a Saudi monarch to place his own son directly in the line of succession. In doing so, the throne has tended to cycle from the eldest to the younger sons of Abdulaziz. Mohammad’s appointment as Deputy Crown Prince means that the Saudi monarchy, for the first time, is placing the youngest possible generation within arm’s reach of the throne. The optics of Mohammad’s proximity to rule cannot be overstated; in a country where an incredible 65% of the population is between 15 and 64 and where the median age is only 25, the visual imagery of a young man leading a war effort and rising to the top of the pecking order in crowded royal family is impressive. Despite the monarchy’s extraordinarily protracted process of reform, placing such a young prince on the throne might quell some anxiety about what the future holds among some young Saudis, and it will certainly give a face to the monarchy that is more reflective of the peninsula’s current demographic than any previous prince so close to the throne.
A frequently overlooked component of Salman’s reordering the line of succession is the role of the Allegiance Council, created in 2006 by then King Abdullah. Comprised of senior princes of the al-Saud family, the Allegiance Council replaces the strict agnatic succession that formerly dictated seniority in the royal line. The Allegiance Council is designed to ratify the king’s choice of the Crown Prince and Deputy Crown Prince, though it’s unclear how much power the Council has to disapprove of the individual chosen by the sitting monarch. When this change to the line of succession was first announced, Simon Henderson, writing for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concluded that the existence of the Allegiance Council might not change the process of succession much and that the move to the “the next generation” (bin Nayef’s) might be twenty years off. But at least in this instance, Salman has taken a drastic step in overturning the monarchy’s incremental pace of reform by ensuring that each of the three top-ranking royal offices lies in the hands of a different generation. The Allegiance Council was designed by Abdullah to increase the predictability of the line of succession, so it’s hard to know exactly how or why the Council agreed to such a large shift in what has normally been expected of chosen successors. Perhaps given Saudi demographics, they see the benefit of quickly passing the throne to a younger member of the House of Saud, though it’s impossible to ascertain their motives with certainty.
If the choice of Mohammad has symbolic import in Saudi Arabia, intentional or not, his rise through the ranks also communicates a strong message to the broader Middle East and to the rest of the world. As Defense Minister, his leading role in coordinating the bombardment of Yemen not only puts him at the head of GCC coalition forces taking part in the operations there, it also places him directly in a position of confrontation with Iran. As the rhetorical skirmishes between the Saudis and the Iranians heat up—as do the proxy battles fought in Sana’a and Aden—Mohammad will continue to be the face of Saudi regional aspirations, especially as it counters what it sees to be the hegemonic aspirations of Iran. And already, albeit indirectly, Ayatollah Khamenei has harshly criticized the “inexperienced youths” around King Salman when accusing the Saudis of genocide in Yemen.
The Ayatollah’s criticism notwithstanding, Mohammad is obviously being groomed as a regional leader. Saudi’s military actions in Yemen come on the heels of increased Saudi agitation toward US policies in the region, policies it sees as having exacerbated a now genocidal conflict in Syria and a Western rapprochement with Iran, which it views as having a destabilizing effect across the Middle East, especially in Syria and Yemen. As the US’s ability or willingness to apply pressure on behalf of its regional allies evidently diminishes, the Saudis seem to be banking on the fact that they will need to play a more aggressive, stabilizing role in the region. King Salman and the Allegiance Council are operating under the assumption that, following the reign of counterterrorism chief bin Nayef, the comparatively young but experienced Mohammad will be able to ensure Saudi Arabia’s role as a regional leader in the coming decades—and that he will do so with our without the regional support of the United States.