Waiting for the Next King of Saudi

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A man in Jeddah reads a local newspaper on 17 June 2012 displaying an article on the crown prince Nayef bin Abdel Azziz who died of cardiac problems in Geneva. (Photo: AFP - Fayez Nureldine)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Monday, June 18, 2012

Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz has just been named Crown Prince after the last two successors to the throne passed away.

In her book on the history of Saudi Arabia, Professor Madawi al-Rasheed notes that in one of the many publications regarding the various “wisdoms and sayings” of the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, were his final words on his deathbed in 1953: “Faisal, Saud is your brother. Saud, Faisal is your brother. There is no power and no strength save in God.”

It was an appeal to the eldest two of his 34 sons born from 17 of his 22 wives, asking them to put aside their differences and work together in governing the emerging Saudi state. It fell on deaf ears.

Eleven years later, a power struggle between the two led to the abdication and exile of Saud, who had become king after the death of Abdul-Aziz, with Faisal taking control and firmly centralizing power. Ironically, Faisal’s reign came to an abrupt end eleven years later, when he was assassinated by his nephew Prince Faisal ibn Musaid on 25 March 1975.

Since Faisal’s reign, power has been diluted between the surviving sons and leading grandsons of the founder, each controlling an important ministry or government position – in effect, creating mini-fiefdoms that compete and only rarely cooperate with each other.

When a Saudi king dies or is close to death, the world holds its breath in apprehension of what comes next. Succession within the Saudi royalty is a question of utmost importance not only for those within the country and the region, but for virtually all the powers-that-be governing the international realm. Saudi Arabia, as everyone well knows, is the country that has the second largest proven oil reserves in the world, especially the desirable light crude variety. More importantly, the Saudi state is a pivotal piece in the matrix that defines and structures the power politics of the West Asian region.

Chosen Kings

Traditionally, succession is passed down from the eldest son to the next brother in line. But this system is not always adhered to, it is afflicted by inter-family tussles and faces the unyielding dilemma of time. Several sons have been overlooked for various health and political reasons. The viable candidates, the first generation after Ibn Saud, are getting older and sicker and the second generation, composed of nearly 6,000 princes, are aching for their turn. Females, as one would expect in a harshly patriarchal conservative society, are barred from even being considered as candidates - an unsettling circumstance that does not seem to distress Saudi’s Western allies.

Abdullah, the current sixth King of Saudi Arabia, is allegedly in his late 80s and his health continues to deteriorate, according to the anonymous Saudi twitter dissenter Mujtahidd. Yet so far, King Abdullah has outlived two heirs, Prince Sultan and the recently-deceased Prince Nayef, who was Interior Minister since 1975. The expected contender is the current Defense Minister and former governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz but he too is old, nearing the ripe old age of 80, and faces his own mounting health problems.

The trio of Sultan, Nayef, and Salman were the strongest members of a faction within the Saudi royalty known as the “Sudairi Seven,” an unofficial title for a powerful and influential alliance between seven full-brothers within the Saud family that included the deceased King Fahd, whose reign spanned from 1982 to 2005. The beginning of this alliance has been linked back to the struggle between Faisal and Saud, where the former relied heavily on these seven brothers in his drive to oust the latter. The clan came into ascendancy during Fahd’s rule and consolidated their power during the 1990s, especially after Abdullah, a half-brother to the rest, had de facto control of the country after Fahd became incapacitated by a stroke in 1995.

When Abdullah officially became king in 2005 after Fahd finally passed away, he attempted to dilute the Sudairi clan’s influence by forming an Allegiance Council. This council’s membership was composed of the then 13 surviving sons and 20 grandsons of King Abdul-Aziz, the Sudairi clan having only a fifth of the seats.

In theory, the council had two key aims. It was supposed to codify the unwritten mechanism of secession, ensuring that the transition and selection process runs smoothly in the near future after the first line is exhausted. It also provided a crude “democratic” face to the autocratic nature of Saudi royal family’s selection process for new kings and crown princes. Notably, the council was authorized to recommend the abdication of a new king or crown prince, and even disqualify potential candidates, according to health concerns.

In practice, however, the pool of candidates is small, shaped less so by the council’s mandate and more by the needs of strengthening and maintaining the Saudi monarchy’s hold on power in response to the growing domestic and regional threats. Nayef’s selection as crown prince after the death of Sultan in October 2011, despite his age and health difficulties, seemed to confirm this desire.

Next In Line

While Western, Gulf, and other leaders lament the death of Nayef as a great loss and consistently laud his track record as Interior Minister in the fight against Islamic fundamentalists within Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006, others are breathing a collective sigh of relief. Nayef’s legacy is not a kind one. He was known to be notoriously conservative and was staunchly against any moves for reform. Under his tutelage as Interior Minister, a massive crackdown on anyone who criticized the regime was conducted and more recently he passed draconian laws that silenced any discontent under the mantra of security.

In terms of regional politics, Nayef was obsessed with confronting Iran and loathed the Muslim Brotherhood due to its ideological threat to Saudi monarchy’s monopoly in regards to religious legitimacy. Furthermore, he had a leading hand in formulating the intervention of Saudi forces in Bahrain, to the relief of the Khalifa monarchy that was teetering due to the eruption of the Bahraini uprising in February 2011, and he was a major force in pushing forward policies that contained any developments for democratic growth in Yemen, Egypt, and elsewhere.

The desire for a strongman to lead the country seems to hold true now that Salman has been elected Crown Prince.

In his long tenure as governor of Riyadh, Salman advocated severe response to beggars in the city – rounding up hundreds, deporting the foreigners and sending locals to a “rehabilitation program.” As Defense Minister, Salman strongly advocates tighter coordination between Saudi Arabia and the US, especially in terms of strongly opposing the Assad regime in Syria. He is known to be a stout advocate of strengthening political and economic ties with the West, no doubt playing a significant role in finalizing an unprecedented arms deal with the Americans announced last December that amounted to around $63 billion.

Dangerous Ground

Analysts, observers, and other commentators unanimously agree that the ultimate challenge for the Saudi monarchy is only a few deaths away. The countless grandsons of Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud attracted to the hypnotic prestige of power may very well spell the end of the Saudi monarchy in the upcoming melee over control of the massive oil-rich state.

Already certain grandsons are being groomed for the role. They include: Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guards; Mohammed bin Nayef, the assistant to the Interior Minister who is backed by the Americans; Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the deputy Defense Minister; Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, the governor of the turbulent Eastern Province; Sultan bin Salman, the Tourism Minister; and Prince Khaled al-Faisal, son of the assassinated King Faisal and governor of the Mecca province; Prince Waleed bin Talal, the well-known business tycoon and poster-boy of reform; among many others.

The quest for the seventh king is simply a glimmer of the grander and considerably more dangerous game in deciding the eighth King of Saudi Arabia.

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