The recent designation of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince of Saudi Arabia was accompanied by a change in the country’s succession procedure. When Mohammed bin Salman edged out his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince, the change underlined that each king must be succeeded by a member of a different branch of the family.

This legal change would seem to be paradoxical. In effect, Mohammed bin Salman kicked away the ladder by which he is likely to ascend to the throne, since he is now slated to succeed his own father. But if the move was anomalous, the amendment was designed to manage family politics in a way that was clever—but that also may ultimately lack credibility. Even if Mohammed bin Salman’s succession is smooth—as seems likely—the sound succession mechanism that the Saudi and other peninsular monarchs have been searching for is still lacking.

The monarchies of the Arabian peninsula generally emerged between the 18th and early 20th centuries (though some have deeper historical roots). In a region with so much turmoil, these regimes seem to have remarkable staying power (only Yemen’s monarchy has disappeared from the map). But if the monarchies have endured, individual monarchs are not always so secure and their families can be fractious. Qatar has had four emirs since independence in 1971; two were overthrown and one stepped down. Saudi Arabia may have been able to maintain succession among the sons of ‘Abdel-‘Aziz, but one king was deposed by the family and another was assassinated by a nephew. Oman’s sultan overthrew his own father. Kuwait’s last succession, in 2006, was accompanied by a procedure in which the crown prince, deemed too ill to rule, was deposed as soon as he took office.

Michael Herb has argued that peninsular monarchies form a distinctive kind of regime, namely a broadly ruling family. In such systems, many senior state positions are staffed by members of the same sprawling family. Succession to the throne is tightly guarded by the family, but a clear succession mechanism (such as primogeniture) is eschewed. The result is to ensure that much of a country’s leadership is thoroughly invested in the existing system and few are permanently shut out of power. Even the indefinite succession mechanisms, while they set off rivalries, offer hope that those marginalized at one time can come back at a later time.

The argument is persuasive about the monarchies themselves, but there are still signs that the ensuing fractious family politics are worrisome, even if they do not endanger the regimes themselves. Policies are tied to the rise and fall of personalities. Deep divisions among family members can set the state structures they head against each other. And unseemly personal disputes can break out in public. Most noteworthy is a problem for rulers: They often wish to ensure that succession remains within their branches of the family, or even among their direct descendants. But they often find themselves casting about for tools to ensure their choices will prevail after their death.

The monarchies of the region, and individual monarchs, have tried to manage these problems in a number of ways. The current emir of Qatar came to the throne when his father found a way of enforcing his choice by stepping down while he was still alive. The sultan of Oman has designated a successor—but has kept that designation secret until it is needed. The Kuwaiti ruling family has constitutionalized the question by having the emir designate a crown prince, while insisting that the choice be presented to parliament and that the new emir take an oath before parliament. The system has worked, even as the ruling family has squabbled increasingly vociferously in public, as was demonstrated in the inelegant but effective 2006 succession. Bahrain has moved towards primogeniture, a dangerous departure in terms of Herb’s argument (since it excludes entire branches of the ruling family from the hope of rule). However, it also assures the current ruler that the throne will remain among his descendants.

Saudi Arabia has experimented with the constitutionalization of succession since it first promulgated its Basic Law in 1992. That document allowed the king to designate the crown prince from among the descendants of ‘Abdel-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud, the founder and first king of Saudi Arabia. The letter of that law was circumscribed by two unmentioned rules. First, the sons of ‘Abdel-‘Aziz had clear preference over younger generations. Second, while the Basic Law assigned the task of selection to the king, the family as a whole clearly had a strong if unwritten consultative role.

The Basic Law was amended to formalize some degree of family consultation in 2007 with the establishment of the Allegiance Authority (Hay’at al-Bay‘a), consisting of family members. It was intended to designate subsequent crown princes (though not the one in place at the time) according to its own regulations. Those regulations, when issued, made clear that the Allegiance Authority was to act in consultation and coordination with the king.

But the step hardly settled matters. In 2014, then-king ‘Abdullah issued a decision appointing his half-brother Muqrin as deputy crown prince. The text of his decision included a provision barring its amendment. In that sense it seemed to be designed to determine succession among the surviving sons of ‘Abdel-‘Aziz. When ‘Abdullah died the following year and Salman became king, Muqrin indeed became crown prince—for only a few months. He was then shunted aside by a nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef. It was at that time that Mohammed bin Salman became deputy crown prince. Two years later, Mohammed bin Nayef was himself ousted by the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince.

Mohammed bin Salman’s elevation was accompanied by two steps designed to make it more palatable for the ruling family. First, it was ratified by the Allegiance Authority. But that move may have undermined that body’s status—the allegiance it pledges is apparently worth only as much as royal politics allows.

Second, the Basic Law was amended, as described earlier, to bar Mohammed bin Salman (and his successors) from inserting members of their own branch as their successors. The message to younger members of the ruling family seemed to be that the Saudi royal family as a whole still rules. Mohammed bin Salman will be the first member of his generation to occupy the throne, but he will not bequeath it to his lineage.

The problem with the Saudi pattern of using constitutional and legal documents to manage succession is that they seem too plastic. They do not guide choices so much as reflect them, while their claims of permanence are revealed to be temporary. The 2017 amendment to the Basic Law is precisely the signal that members of the far-flung family need to be assured that Mohammed bin Salman still views rule as a family affair and not a purely personal affair. But amendments can be amended. Unlike Kuwait’s constitution—which is connected with a parliament that can form an independent will—Saudi constitutional and legal edicts represent the royal will at a particular point in time. 

Mohammed bin Salman’s succession to the throne does not seem to be at risk. However, the attempts to devise a method to regulate future successions amount less to a real system than resemble temporary mechanisms masquerading as permanent ones.