So, new Saudi King Salman, using the official channel of the 35-member Allegiance Council, has shaken up the top leadership of the royal family, most particularly the kingship succession itself. Out as next in line is now former Crown Prince Muqrin, the youngest of the "First Generation" of sons of the kingdom's founder, Abdulaziz, aka "Ibn Saud." The second generation now former Deputy Crown Prince (the #2 spot), Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a full nephew of the king, and the first of the Second Generation to be put in line for the throne, has replaced Muqrin as Crown Prince. His position has now been filled by the much younger son of Salman, Mohammed bin Salman, currently Defense Minister. It is unclear what is behind this, although reportedly Muqrin "requested" to step down. Somehow I doubt that. There has been so far no speculation on why this has happened anywhere that I have seen, including the highly knowledgeable blogs, Crossroads Arabia, where only the bare facts have been reported, or Juan Cole, who has so far had nothing to say about this at all.
So, my quick speculation is that this involves cementing the royal succession into the hands of descendants of the so-called "Sudeiri Seven," of whom Salman is the last one living. Always very powerful, they were the sons of the favorite wife of the late Abdulaziz, Assa as-Sudeiri, reported to be his first cousin, or at least some sort of relative. It was rumored that near the end of her life in the early 80s she was actually running the country from her deathbed through her powerful sons, whom she reportedly totally dominated. This just goes to show that in a totally sexist society, a woman can achieve great power by having powerful sons whom she dominates, an iron matriarch, and she was it, sort of like the dowager empress of China, Cixi, in the late 19th century.
Muqrin's weakness on this front was reported even back when he was first appointed at the time of the succession of Salman on the death of former King Abdullah a few months ago. His problem? A low class concubine mother, no match for the formidable, if long dead, Assa as-Sudeiri. I suspect that there were other factors, with the general closeness of Salman of the newly appointed. But Muqrin was clearly vulnerable due to his mother. I presume we shall learn more sometime eventually about what other factors may have been involved here, although some observers note that both of the guys now in line are more or less hardliners in the burgeoning conflict with Iran and such places as Yemen (indeed, I think that Muqrin had some sort of Yemeni links, which probably did not help him).
Another shift is the final stepping down after 40 years as foreign minister, Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz al Sa'ud, aka "Saud al Faisal." This was for health reasons, and in his last public appearance about a month ago, he was using a walker and looked in pretty bad shape. However, he is not gone form the scene, apparently now being appointed a minister without portfolio and senior adviser to King Salman. Many thought he should have been the first of the Second Generation to be king, but he was too old and ill, not to be. He is being succeeded by the current ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, not a member of royal family.
A curious fact is that since the official formation of the Saudi foreign ministry in 1930, either Saud or his late father the former King Faisal, served as foreign minister for 83 of the 85 years since that time. Indeed, while it had not been officially formed, Faisal had effectively held that position for the 11 years prior to the formation of the ministry, having represented his father at the Versailles Treaty conference in 1919 when he was all of a whopping 16 years old. If you see a photo of him then, you will be looking at just about the oldest and most serious looking 16 year old you will ever see.
The only two years they were not in that position was 196-62, when Faisal was trying to overthrow his older brother, the corrupt and incompetent Saud, who had succeeded their father. When he succeeded, he retook that position even as he became king, holding it until his assassination by a nephew in 1975, when his son, Saud, succeeded him, lasting in it until today. Many consider Faisal to have been the most intelligent and competent of the 43 sons of Abdulaziz, and Saud may well be the same for all of his grandsons. (The guy who served as FM in 60-62 was an obscure non-royal family member, Ibrahim bin Abdullah al-Sowaiyel.)
Update: Based on press reports, a bit mroe is clear. Probably the main reason Prince Muqrin is out is that he had been chosen by the former king, Abdullah, and is clsoe to sons of Abdullah. Hence, this is very much about putting the line of succession into the hands of the Sudeiris and especially keeping the sons of Abduallah out of the line of succession. There have also been reports about how strong the new guys are on national security and how independtne of the US they are. But, this is a joke in that Muqurin also has strong national security credentials, and when the new Crown Prince was first named Deputy Crown Prince after Abdullah's death, his closeness to US officials was stressed. This is internatl family politics, pure and simple.
Another Update: WaPo has an editorial for May 4 I largely agree with on all this. They again fail to note the intra-family politics of this, but they do accurately note that no one should expect improvements in human rights in Saudi Arabia from this shakeup. The only woman in the cabinet, a deputy minister of education, has been removed, and the highly repressive religious police have had restrictions on their activities removed. This probably reflects the elevation of the new Crown Prince, who is Minister of the Interior, following his later father, both of them noted as hardliners on such issues.