Saudi succession plan sees West’s ‘elephant in room’ vanish

America’s rarely discussed fears about how Saudi kings are chosen will be put to rest by this week’s announcements

Dr. John C. Hulsman
Dr. John C. Hulsman
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Washington’s foreign-policy establishment has for decades been quietly but persistently worried about the long-term sustainability of America’s Saudi allies. In whispered consultations, there was great fear about the seeming fragility of the Saudi monarchy, based primarily on the way kings are chosen. Rarely discussed in public, this unspoken dread amounted to an analytical elephant in the room for the Americans, a thought so horrendous that – even though widely shared – it was best not openly discussed.

Since 1953, the Saudi crown has passed between the sons of the founder of the country, King Abdulaziz al-Saud. The key structural problem with this system for choosing kings – son-to-son rather than father-to-son, as is the general case in European monarchies – is that it becomes much harder to keep up with generational changes; in essence, the world moves on even as the monarchy does not.

The key question from an American perspective regarding the House of Saud has become what happens when the ruling family finally makes the precarious leap to the grandsons of the founder of the monarchy.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

The key question from an American perspective regarding the House of Saud has become what happens when the ruling family finally makes the precarious leap to the grandsons of the founder of the monarchy. Would this be managed in a smooth and consensual way, or would it breed open divisions within the very large royal family, schisms that could undermine the monarchy itself? This whispered American fear saw this dynastic challenge as the greatest possible source of instability in a country of great importance for Washington.

Elephant in the room

With the changes in succession that were announced this week, the House of Saud has mastered the elephant in the room. A dynastic process seems well in place to get to the able grandsons of King Abdulaziz, with no disturbances occurring as had been so feared in Washington. If this proves to be as effortless as it now seems, it amounts to a huge analytical hinge point, forcing a fundamental American rethink about Saudi Arabia, leading to the conclusion that the resilience (to coin the trendy foreign policy term of the moment) of the royal family is far greater than Western analysts had generally thought. That intellectual sea change will in turn will positively affect American thinking about both its longstanding relationship with Riyadh and what can be accomplished in the region as a whole.

Beyond even this general – and vital – analytical point, the U.S. will be very pleased with the specifics of the announcement. If you asked a Saudi-watcher in Washington which of the hundreds of grandsons of King Abdulaziz they would most like to first sit on the throne, King Salman’s nephew Mohammed bin Nayef would have won in a landslide. Nayef – who has been named the new Crown Prince – is well-known and well-regarded in the West, where he has a sterling reputation as the tough and able counter-terrorism tsar who worked hand-in-glove with America to beat back al-Qaeda following 9/11. Presently serving as Interior Minister, he is easily Washington’s favourite among the coming generation of Saudi royals.

Securing the succession

Secondly, from an American point of view, the fact that the new Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, was until yesterday the Saudi Ambassador to the United States will be taken as a clear signal that – for all the hiccups in the Saudi-American relationship – Riyadh is clearly signaling its determination to keep the tie at the forefront of its foreign-policy strategy in the coming years.

Thirdly, the appointment of the new Deputy Crown Prince, Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman – the present King’s son, who at around 30 is another generation removed from even Mohammed bin Nayef – sends a clear message the present monarch is determined and able to clearly secure the succession for generations to come.

For all these reasons, look for the Obama administration – whatever happens over the Iran deal – to redouble its efforts to court King Salman, now that America is firmly convinced the Saudi monarchy has easily weathered its feared succession storm. In the end, King Salman mastered the elephant in the room that all of Washington feared.


Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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