That the changes made by King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the succession are of interest to Pakistan is because of the situation in Yemen. Not only do those changes show that the Arab Spring came at a particularly awkward time for the dynasty, at the time that it was trying to manage the succession from one generation of the Saudi family to the other, but it also shows how involved Pakistan is in internal Saudi politics.
It should be noted that the Saudi Arabian state has politics, though not the politics of elections. As one of the world’s last kingdoms, its politics is that of a kingdom, revolving around the succession. It has been a complication that the law of succession has not been one of primogeniture, with the king’s eldest child succeeding, but one of the brothers succeeding. The brothers are now running out; after the previous Crown Prince, Muqrin ibn Abdul Aziz, there will be no more. Muqrin had been designated Deputy Crown Prince by King Abdullah, and Crown Prince by Salman when he ascended the throne.
Salman named Muhammad ibn Nayef as Deputy Crown Prince, thus marking him the next monarch. Muhammad was not an automatic name to come to mind, especially as the first of the third generation to reach the kingship, mainly because his father, though a son of Abdul Aziz, had never become King. Salman has now elbowed aside Muqrin, and Muhammad ibn Nayef has been designated Crown Prince. It might be seen as part of a price, for he named as Deputy Crown Prince his own son, Muhammad ibn Salman. Even within his own sons, Muhammad is not the eldest.
Another factor that cannot be ignored among the Saudis is the ease with which polygamy has been practiced. Muslim polygamy, combined with monarchy (an essentially monogamous European institution), has meant that it must be considered. Within the Saudi dynastic context, there is the Sudairi factor. Abdul Aziz’s wife Sudairi gave him seven sons. Only one of them became King (Fahd), but the clan is strong. The reason the clan exists is because full brothers have generally favoured one another over half-brothers, and the Bani Abdul Aziz have shown they are no exception. Nayef was one of the seven, and was not only a long-time Interior Minister for his brothers from 1975 until his death in 2012, but is Muhammad’s father.
Polygamy, and the resulting proliferation of male heirs, is not just the reason why no less than six brothers could succeed to the throne, but also why there is such a wide disparity in ages between cousins. One of the many cousins superseded by Muhammad ibn Salman is Saud Al-Faisal, who is twice his age, and also the son of a King.
Saud not only lost his shot at becoming King, but also his job, being sacked as Foreign Minister, a job he had held for 40 years, being appointed by his uncle Khalid when he succeeded his father Faisal. Faisal had been his father’s and then his brother’s Foreign Minister. Counting his own reign, when he continued to hold it, he held the portfolio for 45 years. That means that he or his son have held the portfolio since 1930. It is significant that the job has gone to Jubair Al-Adel, a career diplomat, whose last job was Saudi Ambassador to Washington. That too was a post which was more usually held by a member of the ruling dynasty.
It is worth noting that Jubair was the one who announced the war against the Houthis, and gave out a list of the Saudi-led coalition which included, prematurely as it turned out, Pakistan. Prince Muhammad bin Salaman, as Defence Minister, was the chief of the anti-Houthi operation. It is almost as if the Saudi dynasty is dredging up all those members with links to the USA, and giving them a more prominent role. It is also the first time since Abdul Aziz named eldest son Saud Crown Prince, that a King has put a son in the line of succession. Naming Saud did not really work, for though he succeeded, he was removed from the throne itself, and replaced by Faisal in just a few years.
That is not the only bad omen that Muhammad ibn Salman must overcome. The other has been provided by his father himself, in his changing of the Crown Prince. While after the death of Salman, something which, since he is 79, is in the near enough future to form part of calculations now, Muhammad ibn Nayef may well succeed, it is up to him whether or not he wants to retain his cousin and namesake as next in line. Becoming the Deputy Crown Prince is no guarantee of becoming the Crown Prince.
If Salman’s dispositions do hold, the Saudi dynasty would probably have settled its future till the death of Muhammad ibn Salman, which, since he is now 30, should not occur for another 50 years or so. However, it means that Muhammad ibn Nayef, who is 55, may well be set for a long reign. The age difference between the cousins does not just mean that a lot of Abdul Aziz’s grandsons will be superseded, but that Muhammad ibn Salman will be faced with another generational challenge, competing with great-grandsons of Abdul Aziz. Thus Salman is not just managing one generational change, but two. One is upon the Saudis, and the main characters in the second are now grown up. There is also the possibility, somewhat remote, that Muhammad ibn Salman might attempt to have another revision of the succession in his favour. He has been ambitious (or talented) enough to have superseded his elder brothers (who have different mothers), though it remains to be seen if he is ambitious enough to attempt something that would need the consensus of the rest of the clan, including many already superseded, as well as descendants of Sudairi, who would be more inclined to support Muhammad ibn Nayef, one of their own.
Pakistan might be left out of a process that is familial, but it must view it with concern. Pakistan might well see Saudi Arabia as the site of the Holy Mosques, and thus view its security as one of paramount concern. Saudi Arabia has also been a source of employment, and a guarantor of the survival of the state. And as long as the dynasty continues on the pro-US track that started when King Abdul Aziz met US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a US battleship, as is evidenced by the latest changes, and as long as Pakistan remains in the US camp, that will be another commonality.
How the Saudi family manages the succession is not really any outsider’s business, and Pakistan has the cold comfort of being excluded along with the vast bulk of the country’s own citizens.