When addressing the question of succession in Saudi Arabia, several points must be taken into consideration. First, there is the law of Hay'at al Bay'ah (council of allegiance) announced in 2006. This council is composed of the sons, or their descendant representatives, of King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, and is charged with the mission of electing the king and his crown prince.

Second, there is the influence of the characteristics of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud ; and third, there are the challenges that the future king would face. Taken together, all these factors lead to the conclusion that Saudi Arabia has a strong chance of experiencing a smooth transition.

On the first point, the royal decree A/135, issued on October 18, 2006, clearly states that the council of allegiance law is "not applicable to the current king as well as his current crown prince", namely King Abdullah and his late crown prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud.

As a result, any decree that the current king issues regarding appointing a crown prince should not be subjected to the law of the council of allegiance. Accordingly, King Abdullah named late Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud as a crown prince and when he passed away, he named Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud as the new crown prince.


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The council also endorsed King Abdullah's decision to create the position of wali wali al'ahd   (the deputy crown prince), who could become a crown prince only if the position of the crown prince is vacant, and who could become a king in one single case: the vacancy of the positions of both the king and the crown prince at the same time. The position of the deputy crown prince, however, is limited to these two cases, without any other impact on succession.

The position of the deputy crown prince, however, must not be confused with the position of the second deputy prime minister, which was created in the 1960s under the reign of the late King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, and which decides the order of succession.

So while the deputy prime minister used to automatically become crown prince, the creation of the position of deputy crown prince, however, and according to royal decree A/86, issued in March 2014, is optional. As a consequence, the process of directly selecting a crown prince by the council of allegiance could take place in future.

In the past, the second deputy prime minister was automatically the second-in-line for succession, after the crown prince. The holder of that position enjoyed considerable power in the absence of the king and his crown prince.

The creation of a second heir to the throne highlights a fierce competition over power... The outcome of this is that there is no definite appointment of a future crown prince.

The creation of a second heir to the throne highlights a fierce competition over power between Prince Moteb Bin Abdullah, son of King Abdullah and head of the Saudi national guard, and Prince Mohammed Bin Naif, the interior minister. The outcome of this is that King Abdullah hoped to see a peaceful decision made during his lifetime.

The fifth article of the constitution states that choosing a king and crown prince happens in accordance with the law of the council of allegiance, which is applicable to King Salman. So while the council's endorsement of the creation of a deputy crown prince is important, it does not constitute a legal pathway for the deputy crown prince to automatically become a crown prince, since choosing a deputy crown prince is not within the council's purview.

Analysing the language of decree A/86 shows that it is only meant to ensure the existence of an ultimate authority in case of a vacancy of the position of the crown prince as well as that of the king, without imposing an order of succession in future cases.

King Abdullah cannot name a crown prince for the future king because that falls directly under the legal authority of the council of allegiance. Even though the law of the council of allegiance is not applicable to him, it is applicable to the future king.

King Abdullah enjoys tremendous influence. He initiated the fourth Saudi State (the first state continued from 1744 to 1818, the second from 1824 to 1891 and the third from 1902 to 2006) and masterminded a change in the country's power balance. Since 1964, power centres within the royal family were balancing each other, with King Faisal as the ultimate arbiter and the swaying force. This equation was re-arranged in 1975 into a multi-domination system, where power centres were balancing each other but with no ultimate arbiter. 

Currently, there is a new system that may be called the "pyramid of power". The security forces - interior, defence, and National Guard - are at the top, the council of allegiance is in the middle, and at the bottom is the succession to the throne with the king's influence.

Security forces guide   the council of allegiance, thus controlling the general framework for the process of succession. Put another way, according to the new law, the future king has less power than the security forces and the council of allegiance over the succession issue.

Therefore, under this new arrangement, King Abdullah plays the role of the swaying force, as King Faisal once did.


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Still, recent appointments to key positions - such as minister of interior, deputy minister of defense and regional governors - all indicate the existence of a fierce competition among the royals. 

The future crown prince (should the current one succeed to the throne) and future king will most likely be, by consensus, a son of Abdul Aziz, further delaying the transition to the grandsons. For while Salman will be the king, the position of the council of allegiance regarding the appointment of his crown prince remains unclear.

The future crown prince will most likely be considered a non-swaying force. He would not enjoy the same degree of influence that the current king enjoys. Under such a situation, the security forces would unveil their full powers.

Myriad challenges face the future king [Reuters]

For any royal family, there are written rules (like the council of allegiance), and there are unwritten rules (royal traditions). Historically speaking, the Saudi royal family draws on two experiences for their traditions: the complex system of values and alliances that the wars of unification (1902 to 1932) produced and the conflict over the throne after the death of King Abdul Aziz.

The advent of the grandsons' generation into the power scene brought figures who do not identify with these two experiences. 

Thus, we are witnessing a gradual break with previous traditions and the beginning of new ones, which will take time. A future king must manage this transition, while also stabilising the fourth Saudi State.

A key factor will be political reforms, such as increasing the political participation of the Saudi people. For example, reforms could mean that the Shura council (the parliment) should be elected, not selected as is the case now. An elected parliament can be a swaying force in deciding matters related to succession. We have seen a similar case in Kuwait, where the Ummah council decided who becomes the emir. 

Foreign policy is another challenge. Managing relations with the US will prove difficult, particularly amid the Americans' pivot to Asia. The future king must deal with the growing influence of Iran, which is based on non-state actors, and which uses an ideological discourse to forge alliances, thus weakening central governments and creating a global atmosphere of conflict.

Despite speculation and concerns caused by the secrecy surrounding the question of succession,  Saudi Arabia will continue to have a tremendous influence over events regionally and internationally. Saudi public opinion tends to be extremely wary of any radical change. Moreover, the security forces hold the keys to a stable transition; hence, competitions among royals are more likely to remain under control.

As a consequence, as the "multi-domination" system has been transformed into the "pyramid of power" in which the security forces are at the heart of the transition process - and since it has the hard military power as well as the financial power - this means the country's transition has a high probability of being peaceful and stable, although painful and slow.

Source: Al Jazeera