The Saudi Leadership War and the Retreat to Conservatism

Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, April 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Saudi Leadership War and the Retreat to Conservatism


Saudi Ara bia's lead er ship suc ces sion re struc tur ing and Cab i net re shuf fle on April 29, 2015, offered important clues for the strategic shape of the region in the coming few years, and these may not be positive for the Kingdom.

The leadership changes pulled the Kingdom back into its historically conservative shell - even though the changes were billed in the media as bringing youth to the succession process - and this will serve to further alienate the Nejdi, Wahhabist Sunni ruling group from the King dom's Shi'a population in the East and South of Saudi Arabia. Rather than moving to represent all of the Kingdom's communities, the Crown has reasserted its model of top-down leadership. Much of this is a result of Saudi Arabia's indirect war with Iran and Shi'ism, which the House of Sa'ud regards as an existential competition.

The change in the Saudi succession line-up also reflected a profound internal success for the Sudairi side of the Royal Family, and a success for US Pres. Barack Obama, who had strenuously opposed the rise of King 'Abdallah's des ig nated sec ond-in-line, Prince Muqrin bin Abd al-'Aziz.

In the shuffle, carried out in the name of King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz al Sa'ud - who is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and almost certainly did not make the changes on his own ini tia tive - Prince Muqrin was relieved of his post as Crown Prince, to be replaced by the Obama fa vor ite, In terior Minister Mo ham med bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz al Sa'ud. Prince Mohammed is a strong and capable official, however, and has been ruthless in suppressing opponents of the Crown, including al-Qaida-af fil i ated jihadists. His elevation to Crown Prince is of great significance, and puts the Sudairi side of the family (the male descendants of King 'Abd al-'Aziz's marriage to Hassa bint Ahmed al Sudairi, a member of the powerful Sudairi clan in Nejd, whence the Wahhabi ideology emerged nearly 300 years ago) back in control of the Kingdom.

There is a question as to whether the current confrontation in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran - where both powers have come out in favor of their respective clients - helped trigger the change in the succession. There is also a question as to whether the National Guard, controlled by the late King 'Abdal lah's branch of the family (the perceived rivals of the Sudairi clique), was fully on board with the plan to throw all of the Kingdom's resources, including the National Guard, into the war against the Shi'a Houthi "rebel" group in Yemen, given that there seemed no strategy or end-game to the Saudi war. Or whether the 'Abdallah line, under the now-removed Crown Prince Muqrin, had sought to use the division over the handling of the Yemen war - operations Decisive Storm and Restoring Hope - to remove the King on health grounds. …

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