The terse announcement on Monday that Prince Muhammad bin Nayef has been promoted to minister of interior in Saudi Arabia accelerates the long-awaited rise of a new generation of leaders to positions of real power in the Kingdom. At the age of 58, Muhammad succeeds his 72-year-old uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, a son of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia, who had become minister only in June.
    The surprising news immediately ignited speculation that Muhammad’s elevation might require revision of the list of potential future kings among this new generation, with Muhammad now possibly at the head of it. No one outside the ruling al-Saud family knows. From the perspective of the United States, however, as long as that family remains in power it makes little difference which prince emerges on top; any prince chosen by the family council to become king can be counted on to maintain the longstanding strategic and economic partnership with the United States. What matters is whether the family manages the generational transition with sufficient skill to avoid a power struggle among rival claimants that might weaken the regime, and to choose new leaders capable of guiding the kingdom through a time of daunting challenges, domestic and international.
    According to the official announcement, Prince Ahmed asked to be relieved of the responsibility of running one of the most powerful agencies in the kingdom. That statement was greeted with some skepticism, but the actual reason for the shakeup may be less important than the result: one by one, at a quickening pace, the men who have run Saudi Arabia for 60 years, all of them sons of King Abdul Aziz, are departing from the scene, to be replaced by newcomers from the so-called “grandsons generation.” King Abdullah himself is probably 89, and the crown prince, Salman, is 76 and widely reported to be in declining health. Two other crown princes who were between them in age, Sultan and Muhammad’s father Nayef, who was also interior minister, died in the past thirteen months.
    Under Saudi law, all kings must be direct male descendants of the founding king. He died in 1953, leaving 34 living sons. Since the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, each of the three kings who followed him has designated a successor from the ranks of his brothers. Age is important but not the determining factor; the law says the chosen person must be “the most upright” among the eligible princes.
    Several of the grandsons have held prominent government positions – Faisal’s son Saud has been foreign minister since 1975, King Fahd’s son Muhammad is governor of the vital Eastern Province – but until recently all positions that exert control over the armed forces, the police, interior security forces, and the intelligence organizations have been held by the first generation. Now that is changing.
    As interior minister, Muhammad bin Nayef takes over a vast organization that runs the police and civil defense forces, domestic intelligence operations, prisons, border control, and the so-called religious police, enforcers of public behavior. The ministry’s Supreme Information Council supervises the content of newspapers and also operates a National Information Center, which according to a study by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies “maintains comprehensive information on Saudi citizens and residents of the Kingdom” through a nationwide computer network.
    He also assumes responsibility for suppressing an increasingly intense wave of dissent and demonstrations among the Shiite Muslim population of the Eastern Province, home of the country’s oil installations. The Shiites, who face systematic discrimination from the majority Sunni population and government, have been taking to the streets for months in episodes that have been marked by violence.
    Prince Ahmed had been widely criticized since becoming interior minister in June for the government’s response to these disturbances, which has basically been to try to suppress them by force. Muhammad bin Nayef also has a reputation as a hard-liner based on the successful campaign he directed to quash an armed uprising by an al-Qaeda affiliate from 2003 to 2006, but his tactics were not based entirely on force. He also oversaw the establishment of a rehabilitation program aimed at dissuading religious extremists from resorting to violence.
    In addition to Muhammad, the list of grandsons holding senior positions in security organizations includes Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the king and his successor as commander of the U.S.-trained National Guard; Bandar bin Sultan, longtime ambassador to the United States, appointed this summer as head of intelligence; and his half-brother Khaled bin Sultan, deputy defense minister. Both are sons of Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who upon his death in October 2012 was defense minister as well as crown prince. None of those grandsons is necessarily destined to be king but each holds a position of bargaining power within the family. Horse-trading within the family council is to be expected; open rivalry could bring down the regime.