Saudi Arabia's succession issues
The insulation of Saudi Arabia's energy sector from royal politics stands in contrast to other areas of economic life
Outside the core oil and economy ministries, power is often vested in members of the House of Saud, who have a tendency to protect their positions through the creation of vast – and often immovable – patronage networks.
Steffen Hertog's new book, Princes, Brokers and Bureaucrats, Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia, provides a glimpse of how oil money granted regime elites unusual leeway for various institutional experiments in different parts of the state: in some cases creating massive rent-seeking networks deeply interwoven with local society; but in some others, insulated islands of remarkable efficiency – the oil sector being one.
The most powerful alliance in the kingdom is the so-called Sudeiri Seven, the seven full brothers of the kingdom's founder, King Abdulaziz bin-Saud, and his wife, Princess Hassa Bin Hamad al-Sudeiri. Crucially, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is not a member of the Sudeiri Seven, as he is only a half-brother of these princes, who include Crown Prince Sultan and second-deputy prime minister Prince Nayef.
The kingdom is the focus of relentless discussion about the plans of the conservative Sudeiri princes, supposedly ranged against their more reformist half-brother and his supporters. While Abdullah has cast himself as a moderniser, for example through his pushing for reform of the education curriculum, senior political relations between the upper echelons of the House of Saud are more complicated than is often portrayed. For example, it was King Fahd, a Sudeiri, who helped to create the modern apparatus of the Saudi oil state, enshrining the institutions' removal from princely interference.
Succession is never far from any talk about the House of Saud. King Abdullah's most likely successor is Prince Nayef, whose fief is the powerful interior ministry. He is seen as a conservative, but one who has worked hard to defeat the Jihadist challenge that shook the kingdom to its foundations in 2003-04. Riyadh governor Prince Salman is also touted as a compromise candidate to succeed King Abdullah.
Succession issues also affect the oil ministry. Ali al-Naimi has been oil minister since 1995 and speculation about his resignation regularly does the rounds. According to precedent, his most likely follower would be the well-regarded head of Saudi Aramco, Khalid al-Falih – Naimi was previously head of Aramco. However, Falih took on that job only in January 2009, and may need a few more years under his belt before he is ready to take on the top job.