By Kamran Bokhari

Saudi Arabia is facing a number of serious challenges that threaten to destabilize the country. Low oil prices, unrest in the Middle East and a recent dispute between Gulf Arab countries over Qatar are just a few examples. And now, a shake-up in the royal family may make it harder for the country to manage these problems.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman announced June 21 that his son Mohammed bin Salman will be the new crown prince and first in line to the throne, replacing the king’s nephew Mohammed bin Nayef. The move was expected but could still cause complications in the royal family since 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is much younger and less experienced than other potential candidates for the role.

New Precedents

Despite having been second in line to the throne behind Mohammed bin Nayef, the king’s son was already the second-most powerful member of the royal family before this change. Since he became the monarch in 2015, the 81-year-old king had been preparing his son to take over as crown prince, giving him more powers and making him deputy crown prince in April 2015, despite the fact that he had no previous government role. Meanwhile, Mohammed bin Nayef was being progressively overshadowed by his cousin.

A picture taken on Jan. 17, 2016, in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, shows a giant poster on a building bearing a portrait of Saudi King Salman (C), former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (L) and the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to losing his role as crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef was also removed from his other positions, including interior minister, while the king’s son still holds a number of other titles, including defense minister.

The decision to replace a crown prince would be unprecedented were it not for the fact that Salman removed his half brother from the position two years ago to appoint Mohammed bin Nayef. It is still a risky maneuver that could eventually stir up opposition.

There are many other princes in the third generation of the Al Saud family who are more senior and more experienced than the new crown prince. Mohammed bin Nayef, who is 57 years old, had a long career in the Interior Ministry. He was the counterterrorism czar, earning a great deal of respect in Washington for his efforts to neutralize al-Qaida, and almost lost his life in an assassination attempt.

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Other candidates included Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, the minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard; Prince Turki bin Faisal, former intelligence chief and former ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom; and Prince Khaled bin Faisal, governor of Mecca and a former education minister. All these candidates are much more accomplished than Mohammed bin Salman, but they are also much older.

Riyadh is playing up the new crown prince’s youth, presenting it as a positive change for the kingdom, which historically has been ruled by older monarchs. This may have a certain appeal among the Saudi people, three-quarters of whom are under the age of 35. But it is also a shock to the culture and system of a tribal nation that deeply values seniority.

Inopportune Times

The king realizes this is a risky move, which is one reason he reinstated previously withdrawn benefits for state employees. The government implemented austerity measures last September because of low oil prices and declining foreign exchange reserves. The measures included cuts to salaries and other benefits for public workers. In April, the king reinstated the allowances, likely prompted by a public backlash against the cuts. But on June 21, the king announced that public workers would be paid the allowances they had missed out on since the measures were introduced, probably in an effort to gain public support as his son takes over as crown prince.

The government has been eager to show that the transition to a new crown prince has been smooth. It announced that the new crown prince’s appointment was supported by 31 of 34 members of the Allegiance Council, a body that approves successors to the throne. State TV also broadcast images of the outgoing crown prince blessing the new crown prince. It’s unlikely that this change will result in upheaval in the short term; the royal family would fear that any dissent from within the monarchy could add to the kingdom’s other social and economic challenges. But resentment, coupled with fears that the young prince may not be prepared to deal with these challenges, are likely to cause some dissent among the ruling elite down the road.

For now, the kingdom’s other problems are much more pressing. The biggest threat to the Saudis’ stability is low oil prices, since the country’s economy is so heavily dependent on the energy sector. After having risen to roughly $58 per barrel at the beginning of the year, the price of crude is at a nine-month low at roughly $43 per barrel. In the past few weeks alone, the price has dropped by almost $10 per barrel. The Saudis use oil revenue to pay public workers and maintain social cohesion. But given that oil prices are unlikely to rise to the levels that the Saudis need to pay for their expenses without dipping into their reserves, maintaining domestic stability will be hard.

In addition, a lot of attention has been given to an initiative called Vision 2030. Headed by Mohammed bin Salman, Vision 2030 would introduce major changes to the Saudi economy. But these changes would require a massive overhaul of the country’s political system, and this takes time – something that is in short supply in the kingdom.

The country is also facing challenges beyond its borders. Saudi Arabia has been forced into the impossible position of having to manage the increasing turmoil in the Arab world. It is also struggling with Turkey and the Islamic State for leadership of the Sunni Muslim world. In fact, as the recent dispute with Qatar shows, the Saudis do not even have effective control over the small bloc of countries included in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia is also becoming more and more vulnerable to Iran and its Arab Shiite allies, who want to take advantage of the infighting among Arab states and non-state actors.

This is a very inopportune time for a major domestic shake-up. But as geopolitics teaches us, leaders seldom get to make decisions at opportune times.

Historically, the Saudi kingdom has been resilient. But it has never faced such daunting tests, both internally and externally. The kingdom has reached an impasse where the old ways of managing its affairs are not working, and embracing a new paradigm is extremely difficult. Leadership changes as radical as the one the king is engaging in only make matters worse.

Kamran Bokhari
Kamran Bokhari, PhD, is a regular contributor to and former senior analyst (2015-2018) with Geopolitical Futures. Dr. Bokhari is now the Senior Director, Eurasian Security & Prosperity Portfolio at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington, DC. Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the Coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @Kamran Bokhari