Saudi Arabia's Game of Thrones

King Salman Amasses Power

Saudi security agents stand guard as U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015. Jim Bourg / Courtesy Reuters

In just over ten days of rule, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has moved swiftly to consolidate power. In doing so, he has raised the profile of two of the royal family’s so-called third-generation princes—Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the deputy crown prince and minister of the interior, and Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the king’s young son, who is now defense minister and chief of the royal court—and sidelined a number of their cousins. In a family where, for decades, political power has been dispersed among several members, the centralization of power is certain to raise eyebrows. It also raises questions about how the Saudi-American relationship, which has weathered numerous contemporary crises (9/11, the Iraq War, the Arab Spring), is going to be managed under the new ruler.


Since the reign of King Faisal (1964–1975), effective decision-making power in Saudi Arabia has been shared by a group of half-brothers who backed Faisal in his struggle for power against his older brother, King Saud (1953–1964). This “party of Faisal” has supplied the country’s kings ever since: Khalid (1975–82), Fahd (1982–2005), Abdullah (2005–15), and now Salman. The party of Faisal also controlled important posts, such as the Defense Ministry, under Prince Sultan, and the Ministry of the Interior, under Prince Nayef. (Both men died before they got their chance at the top spot.) The king, of course, was primus inter pares among the half-brothers, but the rest of the group members still had vast power through their control of important bureaucratic positions and through an utterly opaque but ultimately effective decision-making process.

But the party of Faisal is over. Salman is its last member; his crown prince, Muqrin, was too young to be involved in the political machinations that brought the party to power in the 1960s. With the passing of a generation, Salman was thus confronted with the opportunity to restructure his country’s decision-making process. And rather than re-create the old collective decision-making system among the next generation of prominent princes, in his royal

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