The House of Saud has yet to meet a problem it doesn't want to kick down the road, and slotting Prince Ahmad, 72, into Nayef's old job as interior minister fits the bill nicely. Leadership of Saudi ministries is handled as if they are feudal fiefdoms rather than modern bureaucracies: When Sultan, who doubled as minister of defense as well as crown prince, died, his brother Salman, the newly minted crown prince, filled the gap. Ahmad and Salman, who are also Sudairis, would not want the leadership of such an important ministry going to a non-Sudairi half-brother, such as Prince Muqrin, the 69-year old head of intelligence and close confidant of King Abdullah.
Tapping Ahmad avoids promoting a grandson of the kingdom's founder Abdul-Aziz, also known as Ibn Saud, to being a full minister. Among the next generation of Saudi princes, there is intense competition for such a prestigious role in a major ministry. The heavyweights in this contest are Mitab bin Abdullah, the 59-year old son of the king and commander of the National Guard; Khalid bin Sultan, the 63-year old son of the late crown prince and deputy defense minister; and Muhammad bin Fahd, the 62-year old son of the late King Fahd and governor of the Eastern Province, the home of the kingdom's oil wealth as well as its pesky Shiites.
Another one to watch is the counterterrorism chief, the 53-year old Muhammed bin Nayef. If merit were a critical factor in senior appointments, he perhaps should be the next minister for his work in eradicating al Qaeda from Saudi Arabia. MbN, as he is known to U.S. officials, has actually been bloodied in his job, surviving the 2009 attempted embrace of a suicide bomber who had hidden explosives in a body orifice.
Therein lies the fundamental problem with leadership of the kingdom: Its succession mechanism is an actuarial disaster area. Notionally, the throne should pass from brother to brother (actually usually half-brother) among the sons of Ibn Saud, who died in 1953. Only sons who are unwilling or universally accepted as being incompetent are jumped. But the system means that Saudi monarchs are getting progressively older -- with all that means in terms of energy for the role and mental acuity.
Since Ibn Saud, the kings of Saudi Arabia have been Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah. Exact ages are disputable but, accepting that, the trend for age on accession to the throne is still unmistakable: 51, 60, 63, 61, 82. The trend line for the age at which they were appointed crown prince is similar: 31, 49, 53, 54, 59.
If we add Sultan and Nayef, crown princes who died before becoming king, to the series, the problem becomes even clearer. The two princes assumed the role at 81 and 78 respectively -- and Salman is still a worrying 76 years old.
The kings of Saudi Arabia are graying, and look to become even grayer in the years ahead. The logical way to resolve this problem is to allow the succession system to jump down to the next generation. It arguably should happen but almost certainly won't -- personal ambition of individual princes outweighs their appreciation of their mutual interest. Given Saudi Arabia's centrality in the Middle East, if not the world, that may turn out to be to the detriment of all of us.