Undermining the Sudairi clan: The king manages the power struggle

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Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks during the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council on May 14, 2014 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: AFP-Mandel Ngan)

By: Fouad al-Ibrahim

Published Friday, May 16, 2014

Since Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz was crowned king on August 2, 2005 as successor to his half brother Fahd bin Abdul Aziz - who died on July 31, 2005 - he designed a policy for himself aimed at changing the balance of power. He put new rules for the transfer of power stemming from a background that is clearly inconsistent with the direction of his primary competition, the Sudairi faction.

The prevailing tradition [for succession] since the days of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, required creating the position of second deputy or deputy crown prince. In 1941, the king issued a royal decree appointing his son Saud as crown prince and Faisal as deputy crown prince. This tradition was dominant in earlier times, and so Khalid bin Abdul Aziz was a second deputy or deputy crown prince for King Saud. But after Faisal’s ascension to the throne and creating the cabinet system, the position of second deputy came to apply to the succession to the throne as well as the cabinet, since the unification of the position of the king and the prime minister during the reign of King Faisal in 1964. So King Fahd became the first second deputy for the prime minister.

The position of the second deputy remained vacant for four years under the reign of King Abdullah. The reason was clear. The king did not want someone from the Sudairi wing to be appointed, which would enable that person to extend his control to key areas within the state in the next phase. This in turn would pose a future threat to the king’s wing of the royal family when he dies.

The label “Sudairi faction” is used for seven of the sons of King Abdul Aziz with his wife Hassa bin Ahmed al-Sudairi. They are King Fahd (deceased), Sultan (deceased), Abdulrahman, Turki, Nayef (deceased), Salman (the current crown prince) and Ahmed.

The king’s advisors came up with a smart idea that brought good news to the marginalized wings within the royal family. An announcement to establish an Allegiance Commission headed by Prince Mishaal bin Abdul Aziz was made on October 20, 2006. The commission was meant to postpone the question of appointing the second deputy and pass the task of choosing that person to this commission after the king’s death.

The commission is based on the idea of building an alliance within the royal family against the Sudairi wing that would include factions that have been marginalized. These marginalized wings voluntarily choose, because of the change in the rules of the game, to return to the ring, engage in a power struggle and participate at least in supporting either branch of the family.

A royal decree was issued on December 10, 2007 to establish the Allegiance Commission consisting of Abdul Aziz’s sons and grandchildren (who are 35 princes in total) headed by Prince Mishaal bin Abdul Aziz. A statement issued by the royal office in charge of royal decrees explained that the Allegiance Commission’s rules do not apply to the current king and crown prince.
According to the executive list which determines the mechanisms of implementing the Allegiance Commission a year after it is issued, the length of the membership of the appointed princes is a non-renewable four year term. Unless the brothers of the member whose term is over agree to renew it with the approval of the king.

According to the list, the king suggests to the Allegiance Commission a name or two or even three names for the position of crown prince. The commission can reject these names and appoint a candidate not suggested by the king. If the commission’s candidate is not accepted by the king, the Allegiance Commission decides the matter within months through a majority vote in which its candidate and the candidate appointed by the king take part.

At the time, this royal decree was described as a response to the challenge of developing the Saudi regime and protecting national unity. The Allegiance Commission, it was believed, would compliment three other components - the regime, the Shura Council and the Regions Council. Given that these noble goals were a motivating factor behind establishing the commission, it was hoped that power struggles and attempts to exclude one wing or another within the royal family from power would become less likely in the future. The fact is the two competing sides - the king and the Sudairi faction - are fully aware that the commission was established to avoid a Sudairi member from becoming a crown prince, which would make the state Sudairist par excellence.

The position of the second deputy remained vacant after establishing the commission for two years. In fact, the celebration that accompanied announcing the Allegiance Commission was disingenuous. The people who indulged in this exaggerated celebratory praise and flattery of the decision to establish the Allegiance Commission eventually found themselves having to engage in the same praise and flattery of another decision that contradicts the terms of the commission, namely the appointment of Prince Nayef as the king’s second deputy. It became evident later on that a deal was secretly being brokered between King Abdullah and Prince Nayef.

Members of the commission found themselves in a situation where they were either going to be false witnesses or head for early retirement. The commission lost its function at an early stage as it became evident that it was not established out of the true conviction of the king or any of the important princes. Rather it was meant to serve as a means for a specific end and for a limited time. It might continue to serve this purpose every time there is a struggle inside the royal family, thus it becomes a kind of substitute for the family council which did not acquire legal status. The commission then becomes a substitute for the council and a body to resolve conflicts inside the royal family.

The first blow that King Abdullah dealt the Allegiance Commission was on March 27, 2009 when he issued a royal decree appointing Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz the prime minister’s second deputy while keeping his post as interior minister. This step was enough to put an end to the role assigned to the Allegiance Commission because the mere appointment of a second deputy for the king means the commission will not play a role in appointing a crown prince in the event of the king’s death. That is exactly what happened. Nayef’s appointment however was not without a price. The king and Nayef made a deal based on sharing positions between their sons while at the same time taking posts from the Sudairi faction as it will become evident later on.

The deal was not made after it became evident to the king and the Sudairi wing that the crown prince at the time, i.e., Prince Sultan, was on his deathbed as cancer had devastated his body and he was totally focused on treatment and recuperation trips which kept him almost completely away from the affairs of the state.

On October 22, 2011, the Saudi royal court announced the death of the crown prince and defense minister, Prince Sultan. A royal decree was issued, after a notice from the head and members of the Allegiance Commission, choosing Prince Nayef as crown prince and appointing him deputy prime minister and interior minister. The statement issued by the royal court was based on basic law and the Allegiance Commission system. It said: After we were notified by his highness, the head of the Allegiance Commission, and by its members, we have chosen his royal highness Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as crown prince and ordered his appointment as deputy prime minister and interior minister.

Then the king directed the princes to pledge allegiance to Nayef as crown prince while Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdul Aziz, first, and Prince Bandar bin Musaed bin Abdul Aziz, second, took the oath as two new members of the Allegiance Commission. This highlighted the need to mobilize the largest number of votes in support of the king’s decision through the Allegiance Commission.

Perhaps Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz was the odd one out in the commission and in the royal family. He kept on voicing his opposition to being nothing but a tool in the struggle between the different wings within the royal family and to serving as a seal to authenticate the king’s decisions. He resigned on November 16, 2011, that is three weeks after appointing Nayef crown prince. Talal had protested Nayef’s appointment as second deputy in 2009 and said that the Allegiance Commission should have been consulted before making this decision. He said in a statement that he faxed to Reuters news agency in 2009 that he calls on the royal court to explain what this appointment means and that it should not mean that Prince Nayef is going to become crown prince.

After appointing Prince Nayef crown prince, which Prince Talal saw as another violation of the role of the commission, he decided to profess his objection by submitting his resignation publicly. The Allegiance Commission pointed out on its website that Prince Talal had indeed resigned.

It was clear that a deal was hatched between King Abdullah and Prince Nayef to divide the various positions between them and hand some of them over to their sons. The king obtained privileges for himself and his faction while the Sudairi wing made huge compromises as a price for Nayef’s appointment as crown prince.

As far as Prince Nayef is concerned, a royal decree was issued on July 3, 2011 appointing his son Saud advisor with the rank of minister. Another royal decree was issued on November 6, 2011 appointing him head of the crown prince’s office and a special advisor with the rank of minister. On the other hand, that same day a series of royal decrees were issued assigning the presidency of a number of councils and committees to the office of the prime minister, that is the king, and the deputy crown prince, that is Nayef.
The royal decrees include relieving Prince Abdulrahman bin Abdul Aziz - and he is one of the members of the Sudairi Seven - from his post as deputy defense minister and appointing Prince Salman as defense minister and Prince Khaled bin Sultan as his deputy.

These royal decrees mark an effort to break down the powers that were once vested in the Sudairi wing and were previously controlled by Sultan and Nayef. They are distributed now between the king, former Crown Prince Nayef and Defense Minister Salman. King Abdullah played it cleverly when he listed all these tasks within a administrative hierarchy from the king on down.

Fouad Ibrahim is a researcher and political activist from Saudi Arabia

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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