Last month, after Saudi Arabia’s octogenarian Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz succumbed to colon cancer, the country’s ailing 87-year-old monarch moved quickly to install a new heir. Back in 2009, King Abdullah had settled upon Prince Nayef, current minister of the interior, as “heir to the heir,” a nomination that surprised many because of Nayef’s advanced age, as well as his ultraconservative policies, which have upset more-liberal voices within the ruling establishment. Saudi watchers think Abdullah selected Nayef to avoid internal family rifts—skipping a generation would have upset the current order, since several of the monarch’s brothers are still alive (the Saudis pass the throne to brothers of the ruler before sons).
Nayef, a half-brother of the monarch, tends to be more conservative than the king, and their relationship has gone through ups and downs—often as a consequence of differences over security matters. Nayef’s four-decade tenure at the Ministry of the Interior was a mixed blessing for the country, as he managed to cajole members of the religious establishment and the kingdom’s various tribal leaders into accepting his tough security measures. While the king has accommodated Nayef’s more hardline preferences, Abdullah has nevertheless pushed for significant reforms that tend to trouble traditionalists.
Though Nayef’s dealings with the U.S. and other Arab nations have been characterized in negative terms, the prince is a genuine Al Saud—which means that he always places the interests of the family and the country ahead of other considerations. A stickler for detail, as interior minister he kept regular tabs on opposition figures. Fond of parliamentary gatherings, Nayef is good at listening to various opinions, taking his time to reach decisions. Known for his patience, he is nonetheless impatient with those who threaten the existing order.
Even if Nayef becomes king one day—a possibility that may not come to pass; born in 1933, he suffers from leukemia—he would soon need to select an heir of his own. And it’s unclear whether the ruling establishment agrees on how best to pass power to the next generation.
It’s a question that has haunted Abdullah in his twilight years. Selecting an heir has long been an opaque process, but over the past decade, the king has been under great pressure to modernize it. Key royals, led by Prince Talal, another brother of the king, have called for a constitution—a “social covenant between ruler and ruled,” as Talal termed it—to help Saudi Arabia “find a smooth way to pass the monarchy to the next generation” and avoid “a power struggle.” While Abdullah resists the idea of a constitution, he has acknowledged that the monarchy needs a better succession mechanism; in 2006 he proposed a committee of princes who would formally vote on the eligibility of future heirs.
For all his reforms, though, the king has made certain to keep power concentrated in the hands of the Al Saud family. In order to avoid a political vacuum as the aging generation dies off, Abdullah created a transitional ruling council—made up of several brothers and nephews—that can assume minimal responsibility for state affairs, for no more than a week, if neither monarch nor heir are fit to rule. But the council cannot dissolve government, nor is Parliament permitted to amend laws on the system of rulership. In other words, no one outside the family will be able to recommend non–Al Saud names for the throne.
While Saudi Arabia’s neighbors are battling over such entrenched forms of leadership, the king has managed to avoid a groundswell of public resentment against the monarchy. In part, that’s due to the strong ties between the family and the country’s powerful tribes. And while some disgruntled ordinary citizens have called for the transformation of the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, the vast majority of Saudis still support the ruling family. This loyalty is not merely born out of the family’s financial largesse toward its subjects. Contemporary Saudi rulers have earned allegiance by modernizing the rulership and aspiring to be as transparent as a monarchy could be. Equally important, the House of Saud rules without invoking divine mandate—it acknowledges it reigns by tribal consensus. As the king declared in a 2007 speech, the Al Sauds are “of the nation…and the people are from us, and we all share the honor of belonging to this country.” Nayef is likely to uphold that philosophy, and thus keep the revolutionizing spirit of the Arab Spring indefinitely at bay.
Joseph Kéchichian is the author of Succession in Saudi Arabia and the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia.