Speculation about who will rule Saudi Arabia in the future is mounting after the surprise February 1 appointment of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as second deputy prime minister, a post long viewed as "crown prince in waiting." The unexpected move puts a spotlight on the complicated politics and procedures surrounding Saudi succession.
Prince Muqrin is the youngest surviving son of the late Ibn Saud (a.k.a. King Abdulaziz), the founder of Saudi Arabia. He is now the third most powerful person in the kingdom, behind King Abdullah (who also serves as prime minister) and Crown Prince Salman (the deputy prime minister). Both of these men are ailing, however: Abdullah (age 90) is rarely seen standing upright and has a limited attention span, and Salman (77) has dementia. In comparison, Muqrin (70) appears to be in good health.
His appointment has confused analysts because he was sacked as head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate just last July. Although no reason was given for that decision, he was assumed to lack the mettle needed for undermining the pro-Iranian Assad regime in Syria, where Riyadh is competing with its Gulf rival Qatar for influence and control of jihadist fighters. This assumption may have been mistaken.
Additionally, the change comes just three months after Muqrin's nephew, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, was elevated to the important position of interior minister (equivalent to the U.S. secretary of homeland security), seemingly setting Muhammad up as a potential future king. Indeed, during a visit to Washington last month, Muhammad met with President Obama in the White House, a privilege not normally accorded to foreign officials of that rank and therefore widely perceived as conferring U.S. approval of his regal prospects.
In the past, the Saudi line of succession has been from brother to brother among the sons of Ibn Saud, in contrast to the father-son method seen in most other monarchies. The main qualification has been seniority in age, though some princes have been passed over due to incompetence or unwillingness to take the role. One consequence of this system has been shorter reigns for most of the kings since Ibn Saud, as his sons are increasingly old and often ailing when they assume the throne. For years, many have argued that the crown should pass to the next generation, the grandsons of Ibn Saud -- hence the excitement following Prince Muhammad's meteoric rise to interior minister. But the royal family has never been able to agree on when this shift should happen, and which line should be chosen.
Muqrin's new status also challenges another presumed succession principle: that the king's mother should be from a Saudi tribe. Muqrin's mother was Yemeni, and it is not even clear that Ibn Saud was married to her.
Indeed, Ibn Saud's domestic arrangements in the 1920s to 1940s are central to understanding current succession politics. By the time he died in 1953, he had fathered forty-four sons, thirty-five of whom survived him. This feat was accomplished by having twenty-two wives, though in keeping with Islamic tradition he was never married to more than four at a time.
Some historians -- and all Saudi officials -- emphasize that these marriages and the resulting offspring were vital to uniting the tribes and stabilizing the nascent kingdom. The reality is more nuanced: one well-researched work ("The House of Saud" by David Holden and Richard Johns) notes that in addition to four wives, Ibn Saud typically had four favorite concubines and four favored slave girls "to complete his regular domestic team." Muqrin's mother, usually identified as "Baraka the Yemeni," was presumably in one of the latter categories.