It is not often that the glacial pace of politics in Saudi Arabia offers any real surprises. When Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was removed as head of the intelligence agency in mid-2012, it was thought that the well-liked youngest son of the kingdom’s founder was being cast into minor roles in favour of a new generation of rulers.

He was replaced at the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP) by Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

The move was believed at the time to be indicative of the desire to start preparing a new generation of rulers to take over running a country that has so far been ruled only by King Abdulaziz and his sons.

Surprise decision

Instead, the 67-year-old Prince Muqrin was unexpectedly elevated to second deputy prime minister in early February 2013.

The role places him second in line to the throne, and given the advanced age of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and the reported ill-health of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, is likely to see him quickly taking on significant responsibility for day-to-day decision making.

Previous people to hold the role, notably Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in 2009-11, have exercised considerable power and influence over both domestic and foreign policy. Every person to have held the role in the past has later become crown prince, even though the role is not formerly in the line of succession.

By appointing Prince Muqrin, [King Abdullah] is signalling … that the next step is still not crystallised

Christian Koch, Gulf Research Centre

“It was a big shock to a lot of people,” says one source in the kingdom. “It is perhaps wrong to say he was fired from the GIP, but he was clearly removed and after that I don’t think people expected to see him in such a prominent role again.”

The appointment clarifies the line of succession in Saudi Arabia, but also postpones a decision on the inevitable generational shift by perhaps as much as 15 years.

King Abdullah’s rationale for appointing Prince Muqrin to his new role is focused on installing a loyalist, who will continue to implement his reform agenda, while delaying a handover of power to the next generation of political leaders as those reforms are institutionalised. It also gives the wider Al-Saud family more time to reach a consensus on who from the younger generation could be potential rulers.

Since the death of Crown Prince Nayef in June 2012, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, the head of the Royal Court for King Abdullah, has been the dominant figure in the day-to-day running of the country.

The appointment of Prince Muqrin as second deputy prime minister institutionalises him as the government figurehead in the absence of King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman. What kind of Saudi Arabia will emerge over the next few years as Prince Muqrin’s influence grows and he settles into his role is unclear, but he is not expected to embark on any significant changes in direction.

“Prince Muqrin is not going to roll back any of the reforms or liberalisations made by King Abdullah,” says Michael Stephens, a Doha-based researcher at for UK think-tank Royal United Services Institute. “He is a [King] Abdullah loyalist, who can be relied on to continue on the same course.”

This is in sharp contrast to the reaction that greeted the appointment of Prince Nayef as crown prince in late 2011. Considered a staunch conservative, there were fears then that Prince Nayef as monarch would be much less willing to continue King Abdullah’s reforms and would pursue a much harder line towards the kingdom’s Shia in the Eastern Province and towards Iran.

Reformer prince

People who have met the new second deputy prime minister say he is likeable, cultured, and well educated. He has both the respect of Saudi Arabia’s Western partners and domestic support. “He is not ideologically rigid or conservative,” says Christian Koch, director of international studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre. “He is in agreement with King Abdullah on the slow and steady reform process.”

Prince Muqrin is keen to continue investing in improving the local education system using technology to shrink the gap between the government and citizens. The bigger questions are whether he has the strength of personality and political will to force through any new reforms. While engaging and friendly, he is not regarded as a strong administrator.

His departure from the GIP is viewed by some as a reflection that he is not a forceful enough personality to really push Riyadh’s agenda internationally.

Even King Abdullah, who is the most powerful figure in Saudi politics, still faces some surprisingly vocal opposition to his reforms. When he issued a royal decree in mid-January that women must constitute at least 30 per cent of the government advisory body, the Shura Council, a group of hardline clerics picketed the Royal Court, despite the reforms being approved by many senior clerics.

“If King Abdullah and Al-Tuwaijri want something to happen, it can. They have the influence to push things through. Prince Muqrin probably doesn’t have that at the moment,” says one diplomat in the kingdom.

While that could be developed over time, it is unclear whether Prince Muqrin sees himself as a future king, or having a more modest role in giving the country some stability.

“The second deputy prime minister role being empty, in conjunction with the health concerns around the king and crown prince, has led to a lot of concern in the family about what is happening with the succession issue,” says Koch. “There was a lot of unease about some of the moves King Abdullah was making by elevating some of the next generation princes. By appointing Prince Muqrin, he is signalling to the family that the next step is still not crystallised.”

It is far from certain that Prince Muqrin will become king. His mother is from Yemen, a factor that could still work against him becoming king. Upon the passing of King Abdullah, it is expected that the Allegiance Council, made up of senior princes, will decide who becomes the next crown prince. By then, there could be a greater family consensus on the handover to the next generation, leaving Prince Muqrin to step aside.

“There is a realisation that the next generation needs to take a more leading role,” says Koch. “There are a variety of younger princes moving into senior positions, but there is not yet a real consensus on how to handle that transition.”

Although loyal to King Abdullah, Prince Muqrin will benefit in this mediation role by not being too closely aligned with any competing faction of the Al-Saud family.

There was some opposition to King Abdullah’s ascendency during the 1970s and 1980s from the Sudairi clan, a group of seven sons of King Abdulaziz from a marriage to Hassa bin Ahmad al-Sudairi, that included powerful figures such as the deceased Prince Nayef and current heir Crown Prince Salman. The sons of the Sudairi brothers are now key figures in the next generation of Saudi princes, as are at least one of King Abdullah’s own sons.

Future role

“Prince Muqrin can be an independent arbiter as younger princes come up beneath him,” says Stephens. While he may be popular and conciliatory enough to manage that process, there are some doubts about his eagerness to get deeply involved in the day-to-day running of the country. That could result in a government emerging with several powerful figures.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, interior minister and son of Prince Nayef, visited the US to meet President Barack Obama in January in a move that is perhaps an indication of this.

King Abdullah has succeeded in reassuring his countrymen that a plan is in place in the event of an immediate succession. But the longer term problem of the handover of power to the next generation still remains.

Getting agreement from the wider Al-Saud family on how to handle this process will be an incredible challenge for Prince Muqrin, and one that he may not have expected to handle.