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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah dies

23 January 2015

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King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud, monarch since August 2005, has died at the age of 90. “With great sadness, Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud, all members of the family and the nation mourn the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz AlSaud as he passed away at exactly one o’clock this morning [23 January],” a statement from the Royal Court broadcast on state television said. World leaders are expected to gather in Riyadh this afternoon for his funeral and in the days ahead; several Arab states have declared periods of mourning.

King Abdullah died at one o’clock in the morning of 23 January, just over three weeks after being admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties. He had been diagnosed with pneumonia over the new year, and the expectation has been that his reign would soon end – as was covered in depth by GSN Issue 985, published on 22 January.

Key developments

•    The late King Abdullah’s half-brother Salman Bin Abdelaziz is the new king, with Prince Miqrin Bin Abdelaziz as crown prince. Miqrin was the late Abdullah’s choice. There are concerns about Salman’s health and his capacity to rule.

•    King Salman, who comes from the family’s powerful Sudairi branch, has already issued a string of decrees. Key is the appointment of Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef (MBN) – son of Salman’s late Sudairi brother and former crown prince Nayef Bin Abdelaziz – as deputy crown prince. This seems to answer the central question of where the throne will go once it finally passes to the next generation of Al-Saud.

•    Salman has given significant power to his son, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), naming him defence minister and putting him in charge of the royal court. Many of GSN’s sources are highly critical of MBS, and have expressed concerns that he might have too much influence over his father as the latter’s health deteriorates.

The senior Al-Saud have had at least three weeks to stake their claims on power in post-Abdullah Saudi Arabia: while the immediate succession was already determined, princes from the so-called third generation – the grandsons of Ibn Saud – and the branches of the family they represent will have been jostling to secure their positions.

Salman Bin Abdelaziz was immediately named the new king. Salman (profiled in our special report) is in his late 70s, and there are significant concerns about both his physical and mental health. GSN sources suggest that he is not able to function at a highlevel without considerable support.

The new king is not expected to make any major policy changes, but he is seen as more of a traditionalist than Abdullah; he also has a reputation for being hard-working, austere, and honest. Salman takes over at a difficult time for Saudi Arabia and the region, with rapidly developing crises just over the border in Yemen and Iraq, the ongoing conflict in Syria, deep-running tensions with Iran and questions over Saudi Arabia’s role in world oil markets among other policy headaches.

Return of the Sudairis

King Salman comes from the Al-Saud’s powerful Sudairi bloc – the group of seven full brothers born to Ibn Saud and Hessa Bint Ahmed Al-Sudairi (Profiled in our special report). It is this branch of the Al-Saud which seems to have come out on top in the manoeuvring which will have taken place in the weeks and months prior to King Abdullah’s death. While Miqrin Bin Abdelaziz has been named crown prince – as decreed by King Abdullah – King Salman has appointed Mohammed Bin Nayef deputy crown prince and second deputy prime minister, positioning MBN to be the first grandson of Ibn Saud to rule Saudi Arabia.

According to King Salman’s decree, MBN (profiled in our special report), who also remains interior minister, has the support of a majority of the Allegiance Council, the Al-Saud’s representative body that is supposed to determine all issues of succession following King Abdullah’s death. (For details on how the council works, see GSN 985/ 7). MBN has long been thought of as a potential successor. Born in 1959, his prominence in Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism programmes has already earned him an international reputation; he made a high-profile visit to Washington in February 2014 (GSN 964/1) and in December was back there again, meeting US President Barack Obama (GSN 985/12).

His appointment ends any suggestions that Prince Ahmed Bin Abdelaziz, the youngest of the Sudairi seven (but “not the brightest spark”, as a veteran observer put it), could still have a shot at being king.

It also, for now at least, puts a lid on the ambitions of King Abdullah’s sons. The late king, who had no full brothers, had put several of his sons in key positions in the past two years, probably with a view to advancing their claims to the throne. Saudi Arabian National Guard minister Prince Miteb Bin Abdullah has in particular been spoken about as a future king, though his military background may have counted against him. Crown Prince Miqrin, who was close to Abdullah, may offer some level of cover for King Abdullah’s sons, but his own lack of brothers and the renewed vigour of the Sudairis leave the Al-Abdullah looking somewhat exposed.

Rise of Mohammed Bin Salman

Also set to benefit from the appointment of Salman are the new king’s sons. The immediate beneficiary was MBS, who has been named minister of defence (a job previously held by his father) and Royal Court head (replacing the somewhat Machiavellian Khalid Bin Abdelaziz Al-Tuwaijri). MBS has been head of his father’s court since March 2013, and – even without an official government position – his level of influence has often been cited as a matter for concern.

MBS is the eldest of seven sons by Salman’s second wife, Fahda Al-Hithlain, whose tribal links have earned him the moniker ‘bedu prince’. Seen as impressive by some, and described as blunt and unsophisticated by others, he is seen as his father’s gatekeeper. There is speculation that his power and influence will increase as his father becomes increasingly old or unwell. As well as his new roles, MBS remains minister of state and a member of the cabinet.

Download our special report to read more on Saudi succession including:

Obituary: King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud>

Profile: King Salman Bin Abdelaziz>

Profile: Crown Prince Mirqin>

Profile: Deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Nayef>

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