Robin Wright writes: The House of Saud, one of the world’s largest and richest royal families, experienced a quiet coup within its ranks shortly before dawn on Wednesday. King Salman canned his Crown Prince and appointed a tough security official as the new heir. He named as second-in-line to the throne a young son with limited experience. And he removed the world’s longest serving foreign minister, who was responsible for building the alliance between Riyadh and Washington under seven American Presidents since 1975.
A longer list of abrupt royal decrees was announced in an early-morning television bulletin. Senior princes were then assembled at a Riyadh palace to pledge loyalty to the new order of succession. The shakeup, which concentrates power in a conservative wing of the vast royal family, could shape policy in the world’s largest oil exporter for decades.
The apparent goal was to signal renewed vigor amid deepening turmoil in and around the country. Last month, Saudi Arabia mobilized a ten-nation coalition to intervene in neighboring Yemen’s war, to the south. That has not gone well. To the north, the Kingdom is also part of the U.S.-led coalition running daily air strikes against the Islamic State, which has defiantly held on to huge chunks of Iraq and Syria. And this week the government announced the arrests of ninety-three militants who were allegedly plotting against security targets, foreign residential compounds, and the U.S. Embassy. Most are Saudis.
The decrees were all the more startling because the Kingdom just went through a big transition in January, when King Abdullah died, after two decades in power. Usually, the Saudis move slowly and with consensus. Usually, age takes precedence, no matter the ailments of the senescent first generation of princes sired by the Kingdom’s founder, the warrior Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Sequence was honored even when lining up at royal events.
King Salman instead removed his youngest half-brother and turned the Kingdom decisively over to the next generation of princes, the founder’s grandsons. He also skipped over hundreds who had seniority among them. (The royal family has somewhere around seven thousand princes and princesses.) Salman turns eighty this year. The question is whether the new precedent of forsaking promises and leap-frogging royals might, in turn, be used against Salman’s appointees after he dies — and whether it might end up generating more uncertainty than stability. [Continue reading…]