by Doctor Science
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo thinks Saudi succession is a strange, strange system (via slacktivist). As a reader of Marshall Hodgson's The Venture of Islam, I don't find it strange at all: the Saudi system is based on the usual Islamic succession principles, which are intended to focus on fairness and competence:
1. Fathers should not play favorites with their sons.
2. The holder of an office should be the most competent of the field of candidates.
3. The dead should not rule the living.
Principle 1 means that, under Islamic law, there should be no primogeniture. All sons should inherit equally; daughters don't inherit as much, but they *do* inherit and all daughters have an equal share. Indeed, even illegitimate or slave children have rights -- fathers aren't allowed to say some children count and others do not.
The point, as I understand it, is to make King Lear's approach impossible. The idea is to avoid manipulation and backbiting within the family, and to make sure every child has respect and support that can't be taken away.
Principle 2 means there are no regencies or child-kings under Islamic law. Rulership is never awarded to someone for being "next in line", for birth order alone. Ideally, the ruler should be not just a healthy adult male, but the most able of the group of qualified men. Ability is supposed to count much more than arbitrary luck.
Principle 3 means that a king doesn't get to appoint his successor. He may make a suggestion, he may even designate a Crown Prince -- but (in theory) that can be overlooked after his death.
I stayed up too late last night reading a recent paper on Primogeniture and autocratic survival in European monarchies. The authors, Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell (Univ. of Gothenburg, Sweden) looked at every European monarch from 1000-1800 CE and correlated "type of succession" with "whether monarch left office due to natural causes, or was helped". They found that the latter risk "was several times higher in European monarchies not practicing primogeniture" (inheritance by eldest son). European monarchies became more stable over the centuries, and the spread of primogeniture could explain most of that.
Kokkonen & Sundell theorize that primogeniture is stabilizing because it makes succession very clear: there is only one Crown Prince, chosen by no human agency. Since the Crown Prince is a generation younger than the current monarch, he can afford to be patient. This means that the powerful people around the King (Prince/Emperor/President for Life/Supreme Leader) know exactly who to suck up to, to keep their positions in the next reign: they don't have to pick sides or take chances, they can expect business as usual to continue from one reign to the next.
Kokkonen & Sundell don't talk about one big disadvantage of primogeniture, which is that there's no quality control: the Crown Prince may not be competent, and may not even be an adult. It seems to me that primogeniture works over the long term only in states where the monarch doesn't have to be particularly competent.
One traditional Islamic model of succession was "agnatic election": the ruler was chosen by election or a kind of bandwagon-consensus, from a pool of related male candidates -- the (many) sons or brothers of the previous ruler, usually. The idea is to get a ruler who has the competence to be a forceful leader from the get-go.
The Saudis have been mixing agnatic election with agnatic seniority. All the Kings so far have been sons of Abdulaziz or Ibn Saud, the first King. They've succeeded in order of age, but it's not automatic: many sons have been skipped over because they didn't have the support (or maybe desire) to be King.
I'm not really sure of the point of brother-to-brother succession. It means there isn't a generational jump from one ruler to the next: brothers are closer in age, and so perhaps in general outlook, than the father-to-son succession usual in Europe. In cultures (like Saudi Arabia, and in Islamicate tradition) where rulers have many wives, half-brothers can cover a broad range of ages -- Abdulaziz Ibn Saud had children over the course of 40 years, so the sons that ruled after him effectively belonged to several generations.
Now, though, the House of Saud is in a pickle. There are rumors that the new King, 79-year-old Salman, is in poor health. This would undercut one of the points of flexible succession, which is to start out with competent rulers -- but it may be true, if the succession guidelines were set up before his health deteriorated.
More worrying is that the current Crown Prince Muqrin is 69 years old and is the last available son of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. After him, the family has to go to the next generation, which includes hundreds of grandsons. The first grandson to make the cut is Muhammad bin Nayef, currently Deputy Crown Prince (i.e. second in line). After that, the Allegiance Council is supposed to add grandsons to the succession based on "merit", not seniority.
"Merit", eh? That could in no way end poorly ...*Rains of Castamere starts to play* ...
[1.] By "it works" I mean "there's no civil war" -- avoiding civil war is the most important function of *any* system of succession.