Saudi Press Agency / AP

Saudi Arabia’s smooth transition process

Analysis: Saudi Arabia’s transition from King Abdullah’s rule is likely to be stable, although painful and slow

When addressing the question of succession in Saudi Arabia, several points must be taken into consideration. First, there is the law of Hay'at al Bay'ah (Council of Allegiance) announced in 2006. This council is composed of the sons, or their descendant representatives, of King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, and is charged with the mission of electing the king and his crown prince.

Second, there is the influence of the characteristics of King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud; and third, there are the challenges that the future king would face. Taken together, all these factors lead to the conclusion that Saudi Arabia has a strong chance of experiencing a smooth transition.

On the first point, the royal decree A/135, issued on Oct. 18, 2006, clearly states that the council of allegiance law is "not applicable to the current king as well as his current crown prince," namely Abdullah and his late crown prince, Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud.

As a result, any decree that the current king issues regarding appointing a crown prince should not be subjected to the law of the council of allegiance. Accordingly, Abdullah named Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud as a crown prince, and when he passed away, Abdullah named Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud as the new crown prince.

The council also endorsed Abdullah's decision to create the position of wali wali al'ahd (the deputy crown prince), who could become a crown prince only if the position of the crown prince is vacant, and who could become a king in one single case: the vacancy of the positions of both the king and the crown prince at the same time. The position of the deputy crown prince, however, is limited to these two cases, without any other impact on succession.

The position of the deputy crown prince, however, must not be confused with the position of the second deputy prime minister, which was created in the 1960s under the reign of King Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud and decides the order of succession.

So while the deputy prime minister used to automatically become crown prince, the creation of the position of deputy crown prince, however, and according to royal decree A/86, issued in March 2014, is optional. As a consequence, the process of directly selecting a crown prince by the council of allegiance could take place in future.

In the past, the second deputy prime minister was automatically the second in line for succession, after the crown prince. The holder of that position enjoyed considerable power in the absence of the king and his crown prince.

The creation of a second heir to the throne highlights a fierce competition over power between Prince Moteb bin Abdullah, son of Abdullah and head of the Saudi national guard, and Prince Mohammed bin Naif, the interior minister. The outcome of this is that Abdullah hoped to see a peaceful decision made during his lifetime.

The fifth article of the constitution states that choosing a king and crown prince happens in accordance with the law of the council of allegiance, which is applicable to King Salman. So while the council's endorsement of the creation of a deputy crown prince is important, it does not constitute a legal pathway for the deputy crown prince to automatically become a crown prince, since choosing a deputy crown prince is not within the council's purview.

Analyzing the language of decree A/86 shows that it is only meant to ensure the existence of an ultimate authority in case of a vacancy of the position of the crown prince as well as that of the king, without imposing an order of succession in future cases.

Abdullah could not name a crown prince for the future king because that falls directly under the legal authority of the council of allegiance. Even though the law of the council of allegiance is not applicable to him, it is applicable to the future king.

Abdullah enjoyed tremendous influence. He initiated the fourth Saudi state (the first state lasted from 1744 to 1818, the second from 1824 to 1891 and the third from 1902 to 2006) and masterminded a change in the country's power balance. Since 1964, power centers in the royal family balanced one another, with Faisal as the ultimate arbiter and the swaying force. This equation was rearranged in 1975 into a multidomination system in which power centers balanced one another but with no ultimate arbiter. 

Currently, there is a new system that may be called the pyramid of power. The security forces — interior, defense and National Guard — are at the top, the council of allegiance is in the middle, and at the bottom is the succession to the throne with the king's influence.

Security forces guide the council of allegiance, thus controlling the general framework for the process of succession. Put another way, according to the new law, the future king has less power than the security forces and the council of allegiance over the succession issue.

Under this new arrangement, Abdullah played the role of the swaying force, as Faisal once did.

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