In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, led by the 89-year-old King Abdullah (pictured), has made a series of high-level changes of significance for Saudi policy at home and abroad.

But what do they mean for the future of the Royal Family?


The recent developments are part of maneuvering for power among three factions:

1. The group around Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince since 2012

Salman has been Defense Minister since 2011. His brother Sultan had held the position since 1963 and had prepared his sons for authority within the Ministry.

Both Salman and Sultan are among the “Sudairi Seven”, named after their mother Hassa bint Ahmed of the al-Sudairi family. That distinguishes them from King Abdullah, whose mother was from another powerful Saudi tribe.

The influence of Salman has been jeopardized, however, by his poor health and rumors of dementia. That has put his sons at risk of being pushed aside.

2. Mohammad bin Nayef, Interior Minister

Bin Nayef is the son of Abdullah’s half-brother Nayef and is also part of the al-Sudairi family. He took over the Interior Ministry within months of his father’s death in 2012.

The promotion was widely seen as a positioning of Bin Nayef to lead the “next generation” of Saudi royals, after the passing of King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman.

However, the appointment may actually have been a poisoned chalice for Bin Nayef’s ambitions. As Interior Minister, he would be the first person to incur the frustration and anger of Saudis dissatisfied with the regime and its tough measures on dissent.

3. The group around Prince Mutaib, son of King Abdullah

Unlike Crown Prince Salman and Mohammad bin Nayef, Mutaib is outside the al-Sudairi family. However, like his father, he built a base of influence through his leadership of the National Guard

Mutaib’s rise was seen in March with the designation of Prince Muqrin — the youngest half-brother of King Abdullah and former head of intelligence — as “Deputy Crown Princeā€. Nominally, this put Muqrin in line for the throne after Abdullah’s death and the likely infirmity of Crown Prince Salman.

More significant was the political signal. It had been expected that post would go to Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, another half-brother of King Abdullah and an al-Sudeiri.

Instead, Ahmed was bypassed. The prize was given to the younger Muqrin, who had been considered an outsider: his mother, a dark-skinned Yemeni, was seen as “un-Saudi”, and he has had no direct role in the handling of the Saudi military.

The conclusion was that the King’s real favor had been bestowed on his son Mutaib — a likely Crown Prince if Muqrin ever took the throne.

Earlier this month, the shift in power continued with the replacement of one of the late Crown Prince Sultan’s sons and an al-Sudeiri, Salman, as Deputy Defense Minister. He was replaced by Prince Khaled bin Bandar, another of the Mutaib group.

In effect, Mutaib’s faction now has control of the National Guard and is on the verge of controlling the Defense Ministry

At the center of these changes has been the outsider inside the Palace — Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the head of the Royal Court and the Royal Guards and Abdullah’s Private Secretary. Implementing Abdullah’s instructions, al-Tuwaijri moves between the factions and the power centers of the Interior and the military.


Western media have largely missed the drama within the Saudi monarchy. Most were distracted by the departure of Prince Bandar, a high-profile favorite of the Bush White House, as head of the Department of Intelligence. They speculated that Bandar’s departure was linked to his aggressive policy on Syria.

Yet Bandar’s demise — whether because of health or politics — is on the margins of the power play within the monarchy, although his replacement could give another clue to the fate of the contending factions.

However, last week the al-Sudairis hit back at Mutaib and the King’s advisor al-Tuwaijri, using the pages of The Washington Post:

Behind closed doors, royal tongues have been wagging about the manner in which Muqrin was chosen, the validity of his newly created title and his pedigree as the son of a Yemeni concubine who was never formally married to his father.

One of the al-Sudairi faction, a “former Saudi official”, told the Post:

He is not a real prince; his mother was a slave and there are other brothers who are more competent. Nobody believes Muqrin can become king.

A “Western diplomat” supported the sniping:

Muqrin will potentially be the weakest king in Saudi history. He is not from the first ranks of the royal family, he has no constituency and he will have to ride herd on a lot of powerful princes.

Despite the PR assault, Mutaib and al-Tuwaijri appear to be secure. There is no sign of a change of mind by Abdullah. Crown Prince Salman is at risk because of his condition, jeopardizing the position of his sons. Mohammad bin Nayef appears to be tied down by his duties at the Ministry of Interior.

Indeed, the latest rumor is of another victory for the Mutaib faction — one of its members will be named as deputy to bin Nayef, containing any political challenge by the Minister.

An EA correspondent bluntly summarizes the position:

If the Crown Prince dies first, Mutaib wins quickly.

If the King dies first, Mutaib is still in a good position but he will need other factors to help him claim victory.


Eventually, the maneuvers within the monarchy will lead to thoughts of shifting Saudi policies; however, the story is more likely to be of continuity.

The EA correspondent explains:

Rather than changes in power pointing to changes in policies, those policies and events are being used to carry out the change in power.

The policies are important, but the Crown is the priority right now.

An example is the sideshow of Prince Bandar’s departure as head of intelligence. The interpretation that this marked a new Saudi approach to the Syrian conflict was overblown — Riyadh has continued to support the insurgency, and to press for an escalation of US backing such as military aid, albeit with emphasis on the “moderate” opposition to President Assad.

Syria was more a pretext to explain Bandar’s retreat — the real significance lies in the possibility that one of the competing factions will lay claim to the Ministry of Intelligence.

A similar interpretation could be placed on the headlines of Mohammad bin Nayef’s more assertive approach to “internal security”. In fact, Saudi authorities were simply continuing their tough line on dissent and “terrorism” — the presentation was more an outcome of Mohammad bin Nayef’s authority as Minister, whether or not this was preparing his campaign for the throne or tying him down and preventing that campaign.

Saudi policies will likely be more of the same. Instead, the game will be who in the “next generation” after Abdullah has the authority to implement those policies.