Salman, 79, and his crown prince, Muqrin, 69, are both sons of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who founded the conservative kingdom in the 1920s. The choice of deputy crown prince – now second-in-line to the throne — is Muhammad bin Nayef, a nephew of Abdullah and the first and one of the most capable of the grandsons and great nephews of Ibn Saud jockeying for power in the future.
Even at a time of change, perhaps especially at a time of change, ruling Saudi Arabia remains a family affair – with the modern state named after its founding dynasty, as if Great Britain were called Windsoria.
Bin Nayef is 55 and no stripling himself. But he has a reputation as a moderniser and is well versed in the ways of the west. Governments in Washington and London admire him in his role as interior minister. Having previously been in charge of Saudi counterterrorist efforts, he survived a close-quarters assassination attempt by an al-Qaida suicide bomber.
Bin Nayef is the son of the former crown prince and defence minister, who died before he could ascend the throne.
Significantly, MBN – as friends refer to him – gets to stay in that powerful role as well as occupying the number two slot in the succession. Muqrin’s shortcomings – he is widely described as genial but ineffective – are also likely to play to Bin Nayef’s advantage, analysts and diplomats suggest.
Prospects for future reform beyond the glacial changes under Abdullah remain unclear, though the Saudi liberal view, usually whispered rather than spoken out loud, is that the monarchy must adapt to survive: the big question is whether any moves will be made towards representative government in a country with neither an elected parliament nor political parties.
Another key appointment suggests that the direction of travel is clear. King Salman named his own son, Prince Mohammed, to replace him as defence minister. Mohammed was born in 1980, making him almost an infant in a system hitherto dominated by men in their 70s and 80s. The prince was head of his father’s court when Salman was crown prince and is said to be among his favourite sons.
Other princes to watch are three of Abdullah’s sons who are already in prominent positions: the National Guard minister, Prince Mitab; the governor of Riyadh, Prince Mishaal; and Abdulaziz, who is deputy foreign affairs minister.
The emphasis in Riyadh, beset by regional problems, turbulence in the oil markets, job-hungry youth, worries about the Islamic State and an irritating foreign focus on human rights, is on stability and continuity. Still, surprises may yet lie ahead over the succession.
Saudis and foreigners alike point to Prince Ahmed, 72 and one of the last surviving competent sons of Ibn Saud, as someone who may yet try to disrupt the move to the next generation.
“Prince Muqrin does not have a reputation for competence, and if he is in the line of succession when … Salman dies, there could be an intervention to bypass him,” said the strategic consultancy Stratfor. “If this occurs, Prince Ahmad is the likely replacement.”
For the moment though, in the mysterious world of Saudi-watching, an Arabian version of cold war-era Kremlinology, all eyes are on Bin Nayef. “Naming MBN is a decisive moment for the Saudis,” said a diplomat with long experience in Riyadh.
“He is a moderniser and a relative liberal and he would be the first Saudi monarch with a western education – though Muqrin has a western education too. Bin Nayef, through the interior ministry, has his finger on the pulse of the nation. He knows better than anyone how ready the Saudi public is for more progress – and how much conservative opposition there is as well. King Abdullah had huge regard for him. So even that is part of his long-term legacy.”