Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has named Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as second deputy prime minister, a position that will see him take on more responsibility for running the country and makes him effectively second in line to the throne.
The appointment also scotched hopes among reformers that a shift to a younger generation of princes could be about to occur.
At 67, Muqrin is the youngest son of Saudi Arabia’s founder Abdulaziz al-Saud, indicating that “the line of succession will run to the very end of the first generation”, says Theodore Karasik, research director at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma). He is also a former head of the Saudi intelligence agency and has served as the governor of Medina and Hail. “He is well regarded as a conservative reformer,” says Karasik.
He is considered a close confidante of King Abdullah and a hardliner in terms of dealing with the country’s restive Shia population in the Eastern province, and towards Iran.
“He is a bridge to the next generation, but he also can gives that medium-term certainty that he will be around for the next 10-15 years,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics.
Since the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in mid-2012, King Abdullah has been promoting the second generation of Abdulaziz’s descendants to prominent positions, including the sons of Prince Nayef. The moves were viewed as a sign that a generational shift was under way, but the appointment of Prince Muqrin shows that it could still be put off for several years while the next generation, who are already mostly in their fifties, get more experience in senior government.
“There are certain attributes that a candidate to the throne needs to have,” says Karasik. These include experience within the military or intelligence services, governing one of the kingdom’s 13 provinces, and good relationships with the tribes and clerics of the country.
“King Abdullah is really trying to ensure an orderly succession,” says Ulrichsen. “By putting the youngest of Abdulaziz’s sons in this position it shows that to some degree family seniority cannot be ignored in the transition to the next generation. But there is no going back now, so there is more certainty about when this shift will take place.”
Prince Muqrin’s appointment is also remarkable as his mother is from Yemen, something which had previously been viewed as disqualifying him from becoming king. By putting him into such a prominent role, King Abdullah is opening the door for other princes who are not from a purely Saudi background to lead the country in the future. “Many people had discounted Prince Muqrin because of his mother’s background, but with his appointment King Abdullah seems to be sending a message that this should not be as significant a factor as some people had assumed,” says a UK-based Saudi analyst.
Prince Muqrin was head of the intelligence agency until July 2012, when he was replaced by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was viewed as better qualified to handle the kingdom’s concerns about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, and the situation in Syria where Riyadh is pushing for regime change. Since then he has been a special adviser to King Abdullah.
Balancing the desires of the kingdom’s young and increasingly well-educated population with the conservative religious establishment has become a key concern for the country, especially in the wake of widespread political unrest in the region. So far, the response to these pressures has mainly been through increased government spending on social programmes.
At the same time, concerns have been growing about transition in the country given the poor health and advanced age of the most senior royals. King Abdullah is in poor health and only recently returned to work after a lengthy stay in hospital, while Crown Prince Salman is also reportedly suffering from ill health. As a result, Prince Muqrin is expected to quickly assume responsibility for the day-to-day running of the country.