Saudi Arabia: An Ailing Monarchy
By: Basheer al-Baker
Published Tuesday, October 25, 2011
The recent death of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz signals the imminent end of an era of first generation rule and raises questions about successors to the ailing king. Prince Nayef is the most likely candidate to replace him.
Saudis have been preoccupied with the health of their king, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, for a month, expecting news of his death at any moment. But on October 22, Saudi state television announced the death of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz. Now the kingdom faces changes in leadership under a new set of circumstances. The powerful princes – children of the late Abdul-Aziz Al Saud – are all over 80 years old and most of them are suffering health problems associated with old age. Crown Prince Sultan and his older brother King Abdullah both seemed to be in a race with death this past year. Sultan, who died in New York City at the age of 86, is the only son of Abdul-Aziz to become crown prince without becoming king. For the first time, there is controversy in the kingdom over who will be the successor to the throne when the king dies.
The death of Sultan, who is number 15 among Abdul-Aziz’s ‘first-rank’ children, is a watershed moment in the history of Saudi Arabia for many reasons. It signals the end of the era of Abdul-Aziz’s children, known for their nomadic and paternalistic ruling style. This era was characterized by a blind obedience to the king, which explains the smooth transition of power in accordance with the mechanism set by the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz, based on age and competence. This mechanism was applied through consensus since the royal family forced King Saud to abdicate the throne in 1964, in favor of his brother Faisal.
Sultan possessed a strong personality and a distinguished place among the so-called seven Sudairi brothers – Fahd, Sultan, Abdul-Rahman, Turki the second, Nayef, Salman and Ahmed – children of Hassa Al Sudairi, the first wife of King Abdul-Aziz. He grew up during the kingdom’s establishment and occupied many positions after taking up his role as chief of the national guard in 1942. In 1947, he became governor of the capital Riyadh and eventually became a minister in 1953. After passing through several positions he became minister of defense in 1962, where he stayed until his oldest son Khaled took his place. After King Fahd died in 1982, Sultan became deputy prime minister. In 2005, King Abdullah, who succeeded King Fahd, appointed him crown prince in accordance with the old order of succession, before establishing the Allegiance Council in 2006.
Sultan’s position in the Ministry of Defense and his chairmanship of several internal committees enabled him to become a major figure in Saudi politics, both domestically and in international relations. Arming the kingdom was the key to Sultan’s foreign relations, primarily involving the US and Britain. Sultan, along with his brother Fahd, established close political and military ties with the US. This became evident at important junctures in the history of the region, such as the Palestinian cause, the Iraq-Iran war and the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. The pair, Fahd and Sultan, represented a bridgehead for the US project and interventions in the area.
One of Sultan’s sources of strength was the control he wielded over his country’s relationship with the other Gulf countries and Yemen. This was reflected in his management of border disputes with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), successfully using these issues to maintain Saudi hegemony. His strongest role was in Yemen. He established an office called the “special committee” to manage Yemeni affairs. For about 40 years, Prince Sultan’s intervention and influence on the tribes, clergy, and the military in the north determined Yemen’s political direction.
While Sultan was undergoing medical treatment, there was anxiety that his death would create discord within the family council over his succession. It was believed that the deputy defense minister, Prince Abdul-Rahman bin Abdul-Aziz, would demand the position of crown prince because he is older than the strong candidate Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz. Abdul-Rahman’s latest moves, his close ties to King Abdullah, and their repeated media appearances together point indicate as much. His return to Saudi Arabia indicates that he is preparing to contest the position of crown prince, especially because he is supported by King Abdullah, who assigned him the defense ministry’s tasks. This in turn supported Abdul-Rahman’s political position after a long absence from the kingdom, rumored to be due to his anger over Nayef’s appointment as second deputy prime minister in 2009. Despite this, sources inside the royal family confirm that the issue was settled with Nayef’s appointment to this position, with the position of crown prince ultimately going to him.
Last year, many Saudis were worried about the line of succession to the throne, as it required a clear and quick decision from the Allegiance Council. King Abdullah set a meeting for the family Council at the end of last Ramadan, where it was expected that Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh, would coordinate the meeting. But Salman was with his brother Sultan in New York City, so the meeting was postponed until Prince Sultan returned. But Sultan’s health deteriorated and he went into a coma last month. It is believed that older princes, like Mishaal, Abdul-Rahman and Talal will likely protest Nayef’s appointment to the position of crown prince at the meeting. However, sources point out that only Prince Talal will protest strongly, especially because most of the family see nothing wrong with Nayef’s appointment given his security achievements against terrorism, the tribal support he has, and his strong relationship with the religious institution.
With 78-year-old Nayef’s appointment as crown prince, Saudi Arabia enters a new phase characterized by further extremism domestically and in terms of foreign relations. Domestically, Nayef is known for leading the forces that opposed the reforms which King Abdullah has tried to implement since becoming king in 2005. Nayef is one of the strongest opponents to demands of political freedom and women’s rights. Of all his brothers, he is considered the closest to the Wahhabi religious institution which has for a long time been part of the interior ministry. The same thing can be said in terms of foreign relations. Nayef takes a security based approach to managing the kingdom’s relations. Saudi quarters confirm that Nayef was behind the decision to send the Peninsula Shield Force to Bahrain to repress the popular uprising there.
Some within Saudi Arabia foresee negative repercussions to Nayef’s ascent in the coming period. There might be a decline in Saudi Arabia’s role because Nayef himself has many illnesses and lacks the unanimous support that his older brothers who served as kings had. Foreign countries view Nayef as a security man who lacks diplomatic experience. If Nayef becomes crown prince, Salman, the governor of Riyadh, who is 76 years old will ascend to 'first rank' among the princes after he has been in 'second-rank' for a long time. There are many commonalities between Nayef and Salman such as their close ties to the religious institution. Salman will play a major role for three reasons. One, he is in between two generations in the royal family and is socially closer to the second generation. Two, he has been dean of the family since 2006. And three, he held a strong position in the Riyadh principality, which is considered the political and economic center of the kingdom. But his future role will depend on his health: he is beleaguered by heart and other health problems associated with old age.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.