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The ascent of MBS: How Saudi Arabia will pass power to its crown prince when his ailing father dies

A composite image of Saudi King Salman and his heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Tass/AFP/Getty Images; Rachel Mendelson/Insider

  • Saudi Arabia may be nearing a transition between King Salman and his heir Mohammed bin Salman.
  • Salman is elderly and infirm and MBS, 36, looks set to rule for decades.
  • Here’s how a royal transition would happen, and how it could pose problems for the US.

For 68 years, only the sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud, have ruled the country.

Salman, the last of Abdulaziz’s 34 eligible sons, is monarch today. In 2017, he chose his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, as his heir.

Since then, Crown Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, has risen to become the country’s de facto leader and neutralized opposition to his rule in the process, including by imprisoning Prince Ahmed, the only other eligible surviving son of Abdulaziz.

Since Salman assumed the throne in 2015 — taking over from his half-brother, King Abdullah — rumors of his demise have circulated among diplomats and analysts.

saudi family treeThe Saudi royal family tree.

Reuters

The true nature of his ill health is unknown, but 86-year-old Salman — who spent much of the pandemic isolating in his desert palace — has appeared in public looking increasingly frail.

The transition from Salman to his son will be unlike any before it: MBS, 36, is set to secure the throne at an unusually young age. 

“That’s one of the reasons he is so important,” Christopher Henzel, former chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Riyadh, told Insider. “He will probably be in that position for a long, long time.” 

Here’s how MBS becomes king and how the world may respond.

An immediate burial and snipers around the grave site

The transition between a Saudi ruler and an heir after a death, even if sudden, is usually swift, seamless, and uncontested — at least in public. 

When Salman dies, a series of established protocols grind into action, according to former diplomats and precedents set by previous royal deaths.

First, the official Saudi press agency announces the death, and the time and location of the funeral. Saudi TV channels follow suit, suspending usual scheduling to broadcast prayers and coverage.

Shariah law states that burials should happen as soon as possible after death, and the Saudi royal family, as followers of the strict Wahhabi code of Islam, does not glorify death. When King Abdullah died in Riyadh on January 23, 2015, his body was wrapped in plain cloth, laid on a stretcher, and taken by his family to the Imam Turki bin Abdullah Mosque for the funeral that same day.

When King Fahd died in 2005, the roads around that same mosque were closed and secured by the military, and snipers were stationed near the burial site, the Associated Press reported at the time.

That grave site is Riyadh’s al-Oud cemetery, where scores of Saudi kings and princes have been interred over the years.

“Non-Muslims aren’t allowed in and they’re not allowed at the grave site either,” Professor Bernard Haykel, an expert in Saudi politics at Princeton University, told Insider.

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - JANUARY 23: Mourners and family members burying the body of the late Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, at Al Oud cemetery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 23 January 2015. Saudi King Abdullah died in the early hours of 23 January, aged 90, after ruling since 2005 though he had been defacto ruler since 1995 when the then King Fahd, his half brother, suffered a stroke, he is succeeded by his half brother, 79 year old King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. (Photo by Pool/SPA/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)The body of the late Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud is buried at Al Oud cemetery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on January 23, 2015.

SPA/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Unlike the lives of many Saudi royals, their graves are basic and austere, featuring no names or decoration. Women are prevented from attending the funeral and burial.

Back in Riyadh — where government offices stay open and no flags are lowered — condolences are presented to the new king and bay’ah begins.

Bay’ah is an allegiance ceremony to the new king in which well-wishers greet him, often by kissing his hand or right shoulder in a show of respect.

“People are condoling and also essentially demonstrating their loyalty to Salman, as [Abdullah’s] successor,” John Jenkins, former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia who traveled to greet Salman in 2015, told Insider of Salman’s bay’ah.

Per the Basic Law of Governance, part of the rite sees the new king receive a pledge of loyalty from the Allegiance Council, a collection of 34 people representing the families of Abdulaziz’s children. 

MBS received 31 of those 34 votes when he was put forward as crown prince in 2017. “There was discussion at the time if whether the allegiance to him as crown prince is enough to guarantee the allegiance for when he becomes king,” Dennis Horak, Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2018, told Insider.

Though the inner dynamics of the Saudi royal family are opaque, the consensus among experts is that MBS will easily carry the room. “I expect he would have at least as much support now, and probably more, as he’s had several years to consolidate his situation,” Henzel said. 

Haykel said: “I don’t expect there to be any resistance. If there is resistance it may be one or two people, and that’s happened before, and that is not a big deal.”

How would the US respond this time?

Historical precedence suggests that once there is a new Saudi king, regional and world leaders will fly into Riyadh to pay their respects.

President Barack Obama cut short a trip to India after news of Abdullah’s death in 2015. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. John McCain, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined him.

Similarly, the UK, as Saudi Arabia’s other key Western partner, dispatched a delegation including then-Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Charles, and Jenkins, the former UK ambassador.

However, with MBS, it is likely that the US and UK will have to think harder about their responses than in 2015.

The 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA later concluded was likely ordered by MBS, had prompted heavy international condemnation, notably by President Joe Biden.

Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” while on the 2020 campaign trail and, last February, his State Department effectively demoted Saudi Arabia from ally to partner. That same month, his White House slighted MBS by saying that King Salman, not MBS, was Biden’s opposite number.

“It will be curious to see how much high-profile representation there is from the US or UK because of Jamal Khashoggi and all that,” Horak said.

Mohammad bin Salman king salmanCrown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks to King Salman in Riyadh in December 2018.

Saudi Press Agency via AP

Notwithstanding, Washington will be ready to act. Salman’s death would be “of immediate concern to senior levels of the US government,” Henzel said.

The Saudis would also be “on top of this,” he said. “They have the interest in ensuring everything goes smoothly. I’m sure they would be proactive in engaging immediately with key partner countries — probably their Gulf partners first, but then immediately after that, the US and other Western partners. I would expect they would hope for senior attention right away.” 

When King Fahd died, very early on the morning August 1, 2005, then-President George W. Bush was alerted within minutes, US officials told the Associated Press at the time.

King Mohammed’s crown prince?

Saudi kings begin their reigns by announcing a new crown prince, and often follow by launching a major cabinet reshuffle by royal decree.

All eyes will be on who MBS chooses to fill the spot of heir, given that he will be the first monarch from the new generation of Saudi royals.

It could be a brother  — he has six — or an ally from another branch of the royal family. MBS has young children, but a change in the law of succession undertaken by Salman in 2017 means they cannot be his heirs, according to Simon Henderson, a fellow at the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

When MBS became crown prince in 2017, some Saudi royals were concerned that the throne would begin to be passed in a filial line of succession, rather than the fraternal one that had served the country well so far, Horak said.

But “with MBS’ unpredictability and impulsiveness, maybe he doesn’t name a crown prince at all,” he said.

It is also expected that MBS will bring more loyalists to his side, as Salman did. Once king, Salman removed King Abdullah’s sons, Turki and Mishaal, from their senior provincial government roles and appointed Prince Murquin, his brother, as crown prince. 

When Murquin died, Salman appointed Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince. However, it was bin Nayef who was shunted aside by Salman to make way for MBS in 2017. Since then, bin Nayef has been living under house arrest and is widely considered a key rallying point for those opposed to MBS.

Since becoming crown prince, MBS has been eliminating threats and creating alliances to cement his power. The millennial prince appointed a series of deputy provincial governors from his generation and also gave his friend, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the job as foreign minister.

“He was starting to build bridges with other wings so he would have support going forward,” Horak said. 

‘Barring accidents, it’s a done deal’

Experts agree there is little chance that MBS won’t be king, though Saudi history is full of unexpected twists and turns.

“You can never rule out acts of god,” Jenkins said. “It happened before when King Faisal was assassinated by a deranged nephew [in 1975], but barring accidents, it’s a done deal.”

Despite rumors of Salman’s ill health and MBS success in centralizing power, it may be in MBS’ interests for Salman to stay alive.

MBS is an open target for opposition and, as king, he would be standing alone without his father’s protection.

“As long as the king is there, MBS has cover,” Haykel said.

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