Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Generational Change in Saudi Arabia

by Elliott Abrams
November 6, 2012

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef salute during a Saudi special forces graduation ceremony near Riyadh September 25, 2012. (Courtesy REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed) Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef salute during a Saudi special forces graduation ceremony near Riyadh September 25, 2012. (Courtesy REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed)

Since the death of modern Saudi Arabia’s founder in 1953, the kingdom has been led by his sons–serving as kings, crown princes, and cabinet ministers. The crown has been passed from brother to brother, not from father to son.

Obviously this system has an inherent and incurable flaw: men grow old. The current king is about 90 and his surviving brothers are mostly in their 80s or 70s–and not all are viewed as eligible for the throne. Some have personal “issues” such as poor health, a pattern of unreliability, or a mother who did not come from a favored Saudi tribe. Yet even as the brothers aged no member of the next generation, grandsons of the founder, has ever been elevated to membership in the cabinet and leadership of a ministry. Until now.

As Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy reports, Minister of the Interior Prince Ahmed has been relieved of his duties and his deputy Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (son of the late crown prince) has been moved up to minister. This appears, as Henderson’s insightful analysis notes, to take Ahmed out of the line of succession and to put Mohammed bin Nayef–known as MbN to American officials–at the front of the line in his generation.

There are plenty of others to contest that conclusion–Mohammed bin Nayef’s dozens and dozens of cousins, all grandsons of a king and many who are also sons of a more recent king. But time moves on even in Saudi Arabia, and for the first time a ministry will pass from a son to a grandson of the founder. MbN certainly has a leg up now.

Update: An alert reader has caught an error in this post. MbN is not the first in his generation to receive a cabinet post and head a ministry. That was Saud al Faisal, Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1975 and the world’s longest-serving foreign minister. Saud was born in 1940; his father, King Faisal, served from 1964 to 1975 and was a son of the founder, Abd al-Aziz. MbN is the first since 1975, and as such jumps to the head of his class. Saud, now 72 ¬†and ill, is not in contention to be king.

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