The Slatest

Succession Shake-Up: The Current King of Saudi Arabia Will Be the Last of His Generation

Saudi new King Salman speaks with Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef in Riyadh on January 27, 2015.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

King Salman, the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, will be the last son of the country’s founder to hold that position. In a surprise late night message on Saudi state television, it was announced that Salman had replaced his half-brother Muqrin with his nephew,  Interior Minister Moahammed Bin Nayef, as crown prince. Salman’s son, Defense Minister Moahammed bin Salman, is now deputy crown prince and second in line for the throne.

Saudi Arabia’s succession process doesn’t work quite like any other monarchy’s. The country’s succession law mandates only that the king be a male direct descendent of the first king, Abdulaziz, and gives the king the right to choose his own successor. All six kings since Abdulaziz died in 1953 have been his sons (he had at least 45 of them) in roughly descending age order. This has meant that the last few kings have all been pretty elderly by the time they came into office. With this in mind, Abdullah, the previous king who died in January, created the new position of deputy crown prince last year, naming the youngest brother Muqrin (a sprightly 69) to the position.

But now, Muqrin is not getting bumped up. By naming Bin Nayef, 55, crown prince, Salman is keeping the crown in his branch of the family—Bin Nayef is the son of one of the king’s full brothers, a powerful group known, after their mother, as the Sudairi seven—and his elevation seems well-timed given recent events.

Despite earlier indications of a ceasefire, Saudi Arabia has continued its airstrikes in Yemen this week, targeting the Houthi movement, which the kingdom views as an Iranian proxy. The government also announced this week that it had arrested 93 people with ties to ISIS and had foiled multiple terrorist plots, including a bombing of the U.S. embassy.

Bin Nayef is a logical choice for a kingdom on a war footing. As interior minister, he led the country’s crackdown on terrorism. He’s also survived multiple assassination attempts, most notably one in 2009 in which a member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who claimed to be trying to defect detonated a bomb hidden in his rectum just feet away from Bin Nayef. (He suffered only minor injuries.)

Mohammad bin Salman, the new second-in-line, just 30 years old, is less well known. He was named defense minister only four months ago, but since then has appeared frequently in the Saudi media to discuss the war effort in Yemen.

The moves overall indicate a doubling-down on Salman’s hawkish foreign policy, which in addition to the controversial bombing campaign in Yemen has included support for the rebels fighting Assad’s government in Syria. We probably shouldn’t expect any major domestic reforms or a loosening of the country’s harsh religious laws and stifling restrictions on women’s rights, particularly with the country on a war footing for the foreseeable future. There’s little to indicate any of these men are interested in speeding up the glacial pace of reform instituted by Abdullah.

Still, this is change in a place where there is often none. In addition to injecting some young blood into the kingdom’s creaky gerontocracy, the moves were likely also made with an eye on Washington. In another major shake-up, Salman replaced Saud bin Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, in his post since 1975, with U.S. ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, 53 and a non-royal. Jubeir and Bin Nayef are both well-known to U.S. officials. With relations between the two countries strained by the Arab Spring, the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to Iran, and U.S. officials’ very public doubts about the Yemen campaign,  Salman may have wanted to elevate figures who can keep the Americans happy.