Are the “Sudairi Seven” consolidating power?

Earlier today, or late last night if you’re in the US, we all received a pretty big announcement out of Saudi Arabia:

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz sacked his younger half-brother as crown prince and appointed his nephew, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the new heir apparent, state television said.

King Salman also appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince, and replaced veteran foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal with the kingdom’s Washington ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.

There are lots of implications here, many of which have to do with the arcane inner dynamics of the Saudi royal family. This may be evidence that the 79-year old Salman is not in the best of health and wants to arrange the succession to his liking ASAP, but on the other hand it demonstrates that Salman is in control right now, or at least that Muqrin wasn’t. Maybe Salman decided it was finally time for the crown to pass to the next generation of Saudi princes, particularly if the kingdom plans on being locked in some kind of struggle for regional dominance with Iran for the indefinite future. But the specific reason why Muqrin had to go may have something to do with the faction within the dynasty called the “Sudairi Seven,” and a move to consolidate their control over the kingdom. I don’t want to oversell this, because it’s speculative and because it’s not like this is the first time Muqrin has been fired by one of his half-brothers, so he may have his own issues. But it’s an interesting possibility.

The “Sudairi Seven” refers to a group of princes, all sons of the founder of the kingdom, Abdulaziz b. Saud (“Ibn Saud,” d. 1953), and his eighth wife, Hussa al-Sudairi (d. 1969): Fahd, Sultan, Abdul Rahman, Nayef, Turki, Salman, and Ahmed. It’s been theorized that these seven full brothers have been operating as a cohort, jockeying for political power within the sprawling Saudi family (Abdulaziz fathered a whopping 45 sons) and gaining it largely by virtue of the fact that they were all really interested in politics where most of Abdulaziz’s sons were happy to live the high life and not worry about such things.

The Seven gained some authority under the third Saudi king, Faisal b. Abdulaziz (d. 1975). Faisal was not himself a Sudairi, but nevertheless relied on their backing to oust his brother/predecessor, Saud b. Abdulaziz, in 1964. When Fahd became king in 1982 it was a sign that the seven had really arrived. By this point Sultan was Defense Minister, Abdul Rahman was Deputy Defense Minister, Nayef was Interior Minister, Salman was Governor of Riyadh, and Ahmed was Deputy Interior Minister. Turki got in hot water for marrying the wrong lady and maybe flirting with reformers, so he left the country for a couple of decades and was out of the picture. Plus by this point some of Seven’s sons were old enough to start assuming important second- and third-order positions inside the kingdom. The gang really had a grip on things.

The fly in the ointment for the Seven was Fahd’s crown prince, Abdullah. Abdullah wasn’t a Sudairi and doesn’t seem to have cared all that much for them. Fahd’s stroke in 1995, which left Abdullah basically in charge of the kingdom, probably impacted the Sudairis’ plans for further consolidation. Then Abdullah created the Allegiance Council in 2007, two years after he finally became king, with the role of managing the succession. The council is comprised of Abdulaziz’s surviving sons, plus select sons of those who have already passed. As it turns out, the council’s impact was probably the opposite of what Abdullah intended.

In theory, the Allegiance Council was supposed to put succession choices in the control of the whole Saudi family so that the process wouldn’t be hijacked by any one large and powerful faction of princes–hint, hint–but in practice it doesn’t seem to do much apart from rubber stamping the king’s succession choices. Acknowledging the Seven’s power, Abdullah kept appointing its surviving members as his crown princes, probably betting that they would die before he did. He was right, for a while–Sultan, his first crown prince, died in 2011, then Nayef succeeded him and died in 2012 (this is the kind of thing that happens when nearly everybody in your ruling cohort is in his 70s). So then Salman took the job. Spoiling what was probably Abdullah’s plan to outlive the Sudairis, and despite all the rumors of his poor health, Salman managed to outlive Abdullah, so the Sudairis once again hold the top job in the kingdom.

Muqrin, who isn’t a Sudairi, entered the picture as the Deputy Crown Prince, appointed by Abdullah and approved by the Allegiance Council, in 2013, and it was rumored at the time that he represented Abdullah’s real choice as a successor. Salman bumped him up to Crown Prince when he became king in January, but certainly at this point it seems that Muqrin has been on borrowed time these past three months. Salman started moving out potential Sudairi rivals when he appointed his first cabinet, in which two of Abdullah’s sons lost their posts as governors of Riyadh and Mecca. Today’s move gets Muqrin out of the way and paves the way for a Sudairi, Nayef’s son Muhammad, to succeed Salman and become the first of Abdulaziz’s grandsons to rule the kingdom.

An all-Sudairi line of succession: Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, and King Salman

It also puts Salman’s much younger (just shy of 30) son Mohammad, obviously another Sudairi, in place as the second in line for the throne. And hey, Sudairi group fidelity may be strong, but if I were Muhammad b. Nayef I’d probably have one eye always looking over my shoulder at the son of King Salman waiting in line behind me. While the official story here is that Muqrin asked to be relieved, the unofficial story is that, apart from his family lineage, he was moved out because of his opposition to Mohammad’s military intervention in Yemen.

The less splashy Foreign Ministry change may genuinely have come at Saud al-Faisal’s request–he’s in his mid to late 70s and has been the Saudi FM for almost 40 years. But it also moves out a non-Sudairi prince (Saud is the son of former King Faisal) in favor of a non-royal, Adel al-Jubeir, who got his first major gig as Bandar b. Sultan’s assistant when Bandar (another Sudairi) was the Saudi Ambassador to the US. So he’s presumably a loyal Sudairi acolyte.

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