Saudi King Salman Shakes Up Royal Family Succession

Saudi Arabia's new King has shaken up the Royal Family, and that could have interesting results.

King Salman

Just some three months after ascending to the throne after the death of his brother, King Salman of Saudia Arabia has shaken up the Saudi Royal Family:

BEIRUT — King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a series of surprise royal decrees early Wednesday, shaking up the line of princes slated to succeed him to the throne, replacing a number of ministers and further enhancing the power of his own line.

In moves announced on Saudi state television, Salman replaced Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and named the powerful interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as next in line.

He also named his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince and relieved the long-serving foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has shaped the kingdom’s foreign policy for nearly four decades.

The moves show Salman is shifting further away from the legacy of his predecessor, King Abdullah, who died in January.

Saudi Arabia has joined a United States-led coalition that is bombing the militants of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It is also leading a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels who have seized a large portion of territory in neighboringYemen. The new appointments are unlikely to lead to big changes in these policies.

Of all the changes, the reordering of the line to the throne is likely to draw the most scrutiny inside the kingdom because of competition between branches of the sprawling royal family for positions leading to the throne.

The removed regent, Prince Muqrin, was close to King Abdullah and named by him as deputy crown prince, a position that had not previously existed.

More from Al-Jazeera:

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz has relieved his younger half-brother of his duties as crown prince and appointed his nephew, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the new heir apparent.

The reshuffle was announced by royal decree via state television early on Wednesday.

Salman relieved Crown Prince Muqrin from his post, which was reportedly done upon his request. Mohamed bin Nayef, 55, the grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia, was appointed as crown prince and was also to remain minister of interior.

Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from Jizan in the country’s south, said the moves represented a major change in Saudi Arabia.

“This is the first time that a grandson of the founder of the country [King Abdulaziz], rather than a son, is appointed crown prince,” our correspondent said.

Khalil Jahshan, the executive director for the Arab Centre of Washington from Fairfax, Virginia, said that the reshuffle constitutes a “political earthquake of the greatest magnitude”.

“The Saudi Arabia we knew a few hours ago is no longer,” Jahshan told Al Jazeera, adding: “These are serious changes that will have repercussions not only domestically but also internationally.

“This is a very decisive answer by King Salman to the doubts that many experts have expressed since he came into power with regards to his health, his decisiveness and his control over political matters in the kingdom. And this is his unequivocal answer.”

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.

Faisal “asked to be relieved from his duties due to his health conditions,” said the royal decree published on the official Saudi Press Agency, adding that he was appointed as an adviser and a special envoy of King Salman, as well as a supervisor on foreign affairs.

The latest nominations, part of King’s Salman second cabinet reshuffle since he acceded the throne on January 23, come amid increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran, following the kingdom’s military intervention in neighbouring Yemen.

This move seems to have caught most everyone inside and outside Saudi Arabia who follows the politics of the Royal Family by surprise, and the biggest change appears to be the generational one. By replacing the Crown Prince, King Salman has virtually guaranteed that the next King of Saudi Arabia will be someone other than one of the vast numbers of sons of the nation’s founder, Abdul Aziz, for the first time since the nation was founded. Instead, this move will push the succession battle into the second generation of Abdul Aziz’s family, his grandson’s. To a large degree, these are men who grew up during the era when Saudi Arabia became the immensely wealthy petroleum Kingdom that it is today, and many of them were educated in the West and have likely spent more time their than their father’s did. Whether this means anything for the future direction of the kingdom is unclear, especially since it’s unclear just how much longer the Saud family will be able to maintain legitimacy as the rulers of Saudi Arabia given the revolutionary and other forces that have swept across the Middle East over the last five years.

In the short term, this move seems likely most intended to secure Salman’s own position. As I noted when Abdullah died, there were some doubts at the time about Salman’s physical health and, indeed even about his mental faculties, as a result of previous health issues. Over the course of the past three months, he seems to have acted to ensure that there was no doubt about his own position, both with the cabinet shakeups and other policies. Perhaps the biggest policy initiative of his short time in office, for example, has been the Saudi intervention in the civil war in Yemen, which some observers have described as a proxy war with Iran. That is probably an exaggeration at this point, but it seems fairly clear that the Saudis are intent on preventing the Iranian-backed rebels from taking control of the country. That war, which Daniel Larison has described as “reckless,” seems at the moment to only be making the situation in Yemen worse, and potentially creating a hive on instability on the Kingdom’s southern border. If it turns out to be a failure, one wonders what that will mean for the future of the King.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

  2. To some degree, yes.

    To be honest, I find myself wondering how much of this is really all rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and how much longer the Saud family can keep up the illusion that they are legitimate rulers.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Agreed. As to how long the charade can last, I suppose as long as the oil holds out.

  4. Scott says:

    I think there is something else going on. I think the Saudis are finally hearing the criticism that they just use other countries (like the US) to do their dirty work. The participation against ISIS and in Yemen are examples of a new approach.

    Maybe they’ve heard the drumbeats coming out of the US that maybe they are not as favored as they once were and decided that they better do something about that before it gets out of control.

    It would benefit the US to not be taken for granted by anyone.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I agree the Royal Family probably can’t hang on much longer. The scary thing is that what follows will probably be worse.

  6. @Ron Beasley:

    It will probably worse for Saudi Arabia and the middle east. But the replacement is less likely to be able to continue funding the evangelism of militant Wahhabism outside the region, so it may be a plus for the rest of the planet.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    John Burgess remarks:

    I find it gratifying that in replacing the Crown Prince, King Salman acted through the Allegiance Council. This serves to solidify the Council’s role in dealing with future succession issues.

  8. Tillman says:

    Ah, poor bin Talal. I keep rooting for that crazy Saud to hit the monarchy somehow, and it keeps never happening.

    Just buy up more of News Corp, Talal, and then conquer Viacom. It’ll be your throne someday, when you’re arthritic and on the verge of aneurysm, just like the rest of your brood.

    I can call it a brood, that frickin’ family mated with everyone.

  9. @Dave Schuler:

    I saw that comment, and Burgess knows far more about the internal politics of Saudi Arabia than I do so if he sees it as a good sign then I’ll take it as such.

    All the same, the Allegiance Council is made up entirely of members of the Royal Family so, honestly, I’m not sure what it all really means except perhaps the idea being that a group of men all descended from Abdul Aziz will do better picking a Crown Prince than one man descended from Abdul Aziz.

  10. Lynn says:

    Off-topic but something I’ve been wondering about — the Saudi government has been sending students to western countries to study for several years now. Estimates are that there are some 110,000 in the US alone.

    I’ve talked to a number of them, both men and women. The women are, in general, reluctant to go back because their lives are so constricted. They wants jobs, of which there are few, they want to be able to leave the house, and to drive. The men also want the women to be able to drive in the cities (they already drive as needed in the country), partly to free the men from that duty. They tend to be very critical of many aspects of Saudi culture and government.

    I really wonder what’s going to happen in Saudi Arabia once these students go home and begin to be active in business, in government, and in other positions of influence.

    Was Kind Abdullah being sneaky or oblivious?