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The appointment of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud as second deputy prime minister provides further clarification to the order of succession in Saudi Arabia.
IHS Global Insight perspective
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud appointed his half-brother Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud second deputy prime minister on Friday (1 February) – the unofficial second in line to the throne.
Prince Muqrin's promotion brings to a close speculation that the king may seek to transfer power to the following third generation in the near future. Given the health concerns surrounding both the king and crown prince, Prince Muqrin will be called upon to govern the kingdom should both be absent through illness in the near future.
Third generation Saudi royals will continue to gradually be afforded more power, but the pace of the transition will not be rushed.
Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was appointed second deputy prime minister on Friday (1 February). The position marks the unofficial second in line for the throne and has been vacant since October 2011, when the former incumbent, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, was appointed crown prince. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud issued a royal decree on Friday appointing Prince Muqrin, who was then sworn in to office in Riyadh yesterday (3 February).
The elevation of Prince Muqrin took most observers by surprise. Nevertheless, it appears a pragmatic appointment. As one of the youngest remaining sons of the founder of the modern Saudi state, King Ibn Saud, the 67-year-old prince is believed to be untroubled by the health issues that blight his eldest brothers' days; both the king and Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud are unable to work for lengthy periods. Furthermore, he has a wealth of experience in the higher echelons of the kingdom's political apparatus. He served for nearly twenty years as the governor of Hail province, before being elevated to the more prestigious governorship of Medina province in 1999. In 2005, he was named director for general intelligence, heading up the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP). During this period, the intelligence and security services waged a successful battle against internal Islamist militants.
Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud
Despite this pedigree, Prince Muqrin's removal from the GIP in July 2012 appeared to damage his promotion prospects (see Saudi Arabia: 23 July 2012: Former Ambassador to US Appointed Saudi Intelligence Chief). Although he had attracted plaudits for his role in expelling Islamist militants from the country, Prince Muqrin was increasingly criticised in public by Saudi citizens prior to his departure, which had all the appearances of an ignominious dismissal. In the light of the latest developments however, the seemingly token advisory position to the king he was awarded appears to have been more influential than was believed.
At 67, Prince Muqrin largely bridges the gap between the remaining sons of Ibn Saud and his most prominent grandchildren. The most likely members of that cohort to challenge for the leadership include Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud, and the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), Prince Miteb bin Abdullah al-Saud – who are aged 53 and 60, respectively. Arguably the most important task of his rule will be to complete the process, largely initiated by King Abdullah, of bringing these individuals through into positions of greater authority and ensuring that there exists a stable transitional path.
Stability over all
This appointment clearly emphasises one thing above all else; the value placed on stability by King Abdullah. Although he has made great strides in promoting third generation royals during the last 12 months, the time has not yet come for one to assume the ruling mantle. Although cognisant of the imperative need to inject relative youth and vitality into Saudi Arabia's ruling clique, this does not yet extend to the very highest levels. In this most-conservative of kingdoms, many of the remaining sons of Ibn Saud are not prepared to accept being overlooked for one of their nephews.
Crucially Prince Muqrin's elevation allays concerns over the uncertainty surrounding succession in the kingdom. Serious concerns exist over King Abdullah's health, and rumours surrounding the extent of this were ever-present when he underwent surgery last year (see Saudi Arabia: 30 August 2012: Recently Appointed Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Temporarily Running Kingdom). Crown Prince Salman fares little better. It is not beyond the bounds of imagination that sometime in 2013 both will be incapacitated over health issues, in which case, Prince Muqrin will step in to temporarily run the kingdom.
Prior to Friday's announcement, under the worst case scenario, both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman could have died before the end of 2013 with no appointed successor – resulting in a potentially destabilising scramble for power by the potential heirs. This scenario has been avoided. Although the Allegiance Council established by King Abdullah in 2006 was designed to facilitate the succession process, it has subsequently been sidelined and played no role in the appointment of the two previous crown princes. Furthermore, the vested interests of its members ensure that it is inherently flawed, and it remains uncertain that it will even survive beyond Abdullah's reign. It is unlikely to have been capable of smoothly resolving such a crisis.
What should not be overlooked is that none of Prince Muqrin's sons are sufficiently high profile to be regarded as potential future monarchs. As a neutral arbiter, his choice of successor is therefore likely to be meritocratic rather than tainted by accusations of patronage, increasing prospects for a smooth succession.
A respected operator
While many diplomats in the west may secretly have harboured hopes that Saudi Arabia would accelerate the transition to the next generation, they will not be dismayed by the prospects of dealing with a future King Muqrin. His experience of the West formed by studying at RAF Cranwell in the United Kingdom will certainly reassure many. He is well regarded as a capable operator – despite this being somewhat tarnished by the last part of his stint heading the GIP.
Although more circumspect than some of his siblings in displaying his views, he is a relatively liberal figure. As with his brothers, he is intrinsically suspicious of neighbouring Shia Iran, and overall he is likely to maintain a similar foreign policy agenda to his predecessors.
As the inevitable generational transition looms ever closer, one of Prince Muqrin's main challenges will be to balance the interests of his most ambitious nephews. To ensure internal stability, he will have to work closely with both Prince Miteb and Prince Mohammed bin-Nayef, who each control one of the key pillars of domestic security – the SANG and interior ministry respectively. Nevertheless, he will be wary that each will become increasingly entrenched in the coming years and may seek to use their respective power-bases to press their claims.
Outlook and implications
Although not officially guaranteeing Prince Muqrin's future ascension to the throne, his appointment as second deputy prime minister makes him the leading contender. King Abdullah previously held the position, as did the previous two crown princes. In the meantime, Prince Muqrin will assume an increasingly significant role in running the kingdom, stepping in for the ailing king and crown prince when they are absent or infirm. In the eventuality that he does become king, he is likely to be the last of Ibn Saud's sons to inherit the throne. Having been overlooked in favour of a younger sibling, none of his elder brothers are likely to be appointed his successor – such a decision would be unprecedented in the kingdom.
The most important aspect of the appointment was that it was made at all, rather than who was appointed. From the prospect of a potentially destabilising succession crisis in the near future, Saudi Arabia has bought itself a few more years of regime stability. Prince Muqrin's task will be to steady the ship and ensure that the next generational transition progresses as smoothly.