Saudi Arabia: Concerns of a Royal Succession

There continues to be many articles in the media about Succession of the Crown in Saudi Arabia due to King Abdullah’s recent surgery and rising age.  The age of those likely in line for the throne further permeates discussions of succession.  As a result I have decided to provide some of my own thoughts and analysis on this topic and welcome the views and perspectives of American Bedu readers.

When a monarch is as well-loved and respected as King Abdullah no one likes to consider or discuss succession of the throne.  Yet in reality, those days are probably approaching sooner than many wish in spite of King Abdullah’s successful surgery at a New York hospital.  In my own assessment the multiple changes or transferences of power which King Abdullah put into place prior to his departure to the United States for his surgery are indications that Saudi’s ruling monarch may not resume total power of the throne right away.

However King Abdullah has always been a wise and astute man.  He ensured that his interests and Saudi’s most sensitive positions and assets were protected before his departure.  His own son is now head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard whose key objective is to protect and ensure the internal security of the Kingdom.

The new eyes and ears of Washington, Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir had his term extended for an additional four years prior to King Abdullah’s departure from Saudi Arabia.  His Excellency Adel Al-Jubeir and King Abdullah have a close and trusting relationship and the King has confidence in Ambassador Al-Jubeir’s judgement and decisions.

During King Abdullah’s absence from Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Sultan returned to the Kingdom after an extensive convalescence in Morocco.  There is speculation on whether the Crown Prince is fully recovered from an ongoing illness or whether he is continuing his battle.  While media images will portray the Crown Prince as active and healthy there are subtle indications that he remains ailing and in some pain.

Each of those closest to the throne have their key ministries for which they are responsible and take pride in overseeing these influential ministries.  King Abdullah has ruled the Saudi Arabian National Guard since 1962.  His son was handed the baton which keeps the Saudi Air National Guard in the King’s direct lineage.

Crown Prince Sultan is the Minister of Defense; another critical and sensitive Ministry in the Kingdom.  Again, protecting family interests, his son Prince Khalid bin Sultan is the Assistant Minister of Defense, ensuring that he is also next in line for heading the Ministry.

The Royal seen as most likely to succeed to the Crown is Prince Nayef, Minister of Interior.  As compared to Crown Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef is more of a conservative hardliner.  If Prince Nayef were to take over the reign as King of Saudi Arabia there would likely be some steps backwards by way of reforms and openness.  However his son, Prince Muhammad bin Naif, Assistant Minister of Interior, is seen as more open and receptive to change.

One thing is clear.  The father’s are looking out for their sons and ensuring they are left of legacy of prominence and responsibility.  Yet when speculating about succession, all one can really do is speculate.  Saudi Arabia is well known for its privacy and closed doors.  Nothing should be taken as guaranteed or written in the sand as far as who would succeed King Abdullah.

There are also other key royals whose future roles are not clear and they should not ignored.  Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Saud Al-Faisal will likely retire from the Ministry when he reaches age 69.  Although he continues an ongoing battle with Parkinsons Disease, Prince Saud is a soft spoken and strategic Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Once retired from the Ministry it is difficult to picture him simply settling down and enjoying retirement.  He is a true patriot of his country.  There is speculation that Prince Saud’s younger brother, Prince Turki Al-Faisal would likely succeed Prince Saud to become the next Foreign Minister.  That would be an interesting placement.  Prince Turki, prior to become associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was head of the Saudi Intelligence Services.  He was well liked as the Saudi Ambassador to Great Britian but did not do well as the Saudi Ambassador to Washington.  However there is no doubt that Prince Turki has a great intellect coupled with charisma and charm.

Yet what about the dark horse, Prince Bandar bin Sultan who was the U.S. ambassador to Washington from 1983 to 2005?  He continues to hold the position as head of the National Security Council.  He has been very much behind the scenes for the past several years yet recently returned to Saudi Arabia.  There has been a lot of speculation about his public absence ranging from the negative to the positive yet one thing remains:  Prince Bandar is a man who can and does make things happen, many of which are unseen.  His continued and future role in the Monarchy should never be underestimated.

Of course internal politics will have a great role in any future succession and especially when a Royal family has different branches each with their own agendas and goals.  Many may wonder whether the full interests of the Saudi people and their long term and stability are kept in the forefront amongst internal politicking.  In my own view, that’s not much different from America’s election campaigns.  But I do believe that the Monarchy of Saudi Arabia is going to look out for the interests of its people and the nation.  However depending on who is the ultimate successor to King Abdullah may mean significant changes to the Kingdom and perhaps new alliances with new partners.

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5 Responses

  1. Isn’t it time to change from a gerontocracy to something better?

  2. Saudi Arabia: Dawn of New Era or Replay of Repressive Domestic Policies?

    The recent illness of King Abdullah generated media and analysts’ sensationalized speculations and prognostications about Saudi Arabia and what the future may reveal regarding the succession if King Abdullah’s back pain renders him unfit to rule. This reaction is typical among Westerners many of whom lack basic understanding of the nature of the Saudi royals’ first priority and their tribal “do or die” methods of settling differences amongst themselves. Their machinations in choosing the next King may not be discernible, but a king will be announced and the ruling family will continue to hold power. This is a given under the present circumstances. The issue will be whether a new king will continue the traditional absolutist ways of ruling or will he introduce a more participatory system of governing.

    Saudi Kings have been overthrown, assassinated, fallen terminally ill and been replaced in the past. Each time this occurs Western pundits revisit their old notes, rehash their analyzes of the Saudi princes and speculate whether the next probable King would be a friend or foe of the West and its economic and strategic interests in Saudi Arabia. Absent from these speculations are the interests and well-being of the Saudi people, even when realities in and around Saudi Arabia demand deeper investigation of how domestic factors and changing variables would play in determining the Saudi royals’ policies and behavior.

    Saudis’ expectations have been rapidly changing, albeit suppressed by the government, during the course of the last twenty years. The change in expectations can be attributed in part to the globalization of information and substantial increases in the number of educated Saudi men and women. Moreover, a large percentage of the Saudi population is now below the age of 25. These young people, including some royals, feel increasingly disconnected from old traditions due to their exposure to world cultures, languages, internet technologies, lifestyles and liberties. Such contacts have not only changed the Saudis’ perceptions of themselves, but forced them to look inward and focus their attention on their political, social, religious, educational and economic institutions. Given these realities, it is disingenuous and dangerous to expect them to settle for less than what they know are their rights, which have thus far been marketed to them as gifts from the ruling family.

    During his reign, King Abdullah has demonstrated fractional awareness of the new realities in Saudi society which astute Saudi observers credit to trusted advisers like Prince Talal and Abdullah’s own offspring, especially activist daughters Adela and Sita. Although Abdullah has been dubbed a “reformer”, his “reforming” initiatives consist of royal decrees that cannot be enforced and can be easily dismissed by him or his successors. For example, Abdullah decreed the formation of a governmental human right association and commission. However, unlike democratic civil society, these associations’ members are appointed and paid for by the government whose abuses they are supposed to investigate and correct. Instead, they gather complaints and forward them to the respective government agencies involved. This is evidence that Abdullah was more interested in rallying public support to undermine his arch enemies, the Sudairi branch of the family, than embarking on true reforms that could have led to power sharing with his unreservedly disenfranchised subjects.

    Another example of Abdullah’s decreed initiatives was the formation of a royal Allegiance Commission which was supposed to determine procedures for future succession to the throne. Before the appointed princes could institute a mechanism to layout succession procedures, Abdullah negated the purpose for which the Commission was established by appointing his brother, Prince Naif, as second in line to the throne. Such actions demonstrate that Abdullah’s reputation as a reformer is misleading and diversionary.

    Given Abdullah’s poor health and age, estimated at 87, his departure from the scene is said to be imminent as evidenced by his transferring of substantial powers, including control over the formidable National Guard, to his son Prince Miteb. Moreover, his designated and possible successors, brothers Sultan, Naif and Salman are also aging and ailing, especially Crown Prince Sultan. This inescapable reality will create a new political environment with the passing of the last power wielding second generation.

    Even though the passing of the remaining powerful ruling sons of the founder of the state, King Abdul Aziz, is fast approaching due to illnesses and age, it would be naïve to assume that the royals will demonstrate anything but unity once they carve up the political pie behind fortified palace walls away from the public eye. The process of coaching replacements starts as soon as a prince is assigned a government post. This is primarily done to protect the prince’s position but also serves the princes’ jockeying for political influence at national and international levels.

    Given this ongoing intrigue, it’s safe to predict who among the third royal generation will succeed their parents. The Defense Ministry will go to Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid, the son of the gravely ill Defense Minister Prince Sultan. Prince Naif’s son Mohammed is predicted to inherit his father’s post as Minister of Interior if Naif becomes the next King or is declared unfit to rule due to deteriorating health. Naif is currently designated as second in line to the throne after Crown Prince Sultan who is terminally ill. However, Naif could be bypassed if King Abdullah re-activates the royal Allegiance Commission to select a King and a Crown Prince. If this happens then the throne will pass to the third generation, most likely to Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, currently the governor of Mecca.

    Prince Khalid has the intellectual and experience capabilities to rule and to reconcile family differences which are expected to be more cut throat than their parents’. Like his father, former King Faisal, he is decisive and has strong support among many of his powerful cousins in the Sudairi branch of the family. No doubt that different factions within the royal family will continue to promote their varying agendas and oppose any hint of reforms that might undermine the family’s total control over every aspect of people’s lives. However, the royal family can no longer ignore the rising expectations and demands of the Saudi people.

    The risk to third generation royals will be costly if they do not respond to the increasingly bold and unprecedented public yearning and demands for changes including power and wealth sharing, accountability, transparency and freedom of expression and choice. If the third generation rulers do not take tangible and timely steps to respond to the new realities in Saudi Arabia, people could be propelled into taking violent actions, joining extremists, collaborating with external forces to create mayhem inside the country or committing economic collateral damage.

    Finally, no matter what king rules Saudi Arabia, he will be obliged to maintain close ties to the West, especially the US. Regardless of Saudi royals’ overt complaints and criticism of the US and its policies, they don’t trust any other country to protect them and defend their country. This situation will continue to put the US on the side of despotism against the Saudi people’s yearning and demands for freedom. This is not only contradictory to US ideals, but will increase anti American sentiment in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

    This can only lead to greater instability which could draw the US into undesirable direct interventions to protect its substantial economic, strategic and political interests in the tyrannically ruled and defenseless Arab Gulf. States.

  3. First of all there is no Prince Fouad ! and its definitely named Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) not Saudi Air National Guard.

    Bandar Bin Sultan’s card, for whatever reason, is burned. The only suitable position for him which the royals are most likely not to oppose ferociously is head of intelligence. Though, the question rises of what to do with Mugrin since he is not of ‘pure blood’ and was only able to reach this position through the reforms of King Abdullah.

    Also, you didnt mention the most important fact that King Abdullah established the Bai’ah Council headed by Mishal (second in line in term of age after the King) mandated to choose the coming monarch and with a sole membership of the royal family.

    After king Abdullah, the next monarch is lickly to be from the next generation with the allocation of all the other positions also to the next generation. MOD is to be headed by Khalid bin Sultan, MOI is to be headed by Muhamed bin Nayif, MOFA is to be headed by Turki Alfaisal. The point is each branch of gov is to be left to the current occupying branch of the family.

    Khalid alfaisal is also being groomed for a higher position, though he does not sit well with the religious establishment which will make it very difficult for him. An option was to give Khalid MOI and make MBN a king, though this will give the alfaisal branch both MOI and MOFA.

    Saudi’s next step is a generation jump which is always subject to a less smooth transition. The generation jump is the weak point of horizontal absolute monarchies but avoids the risks of transition in vertical absolute monarchies.

  4. Prince Khalid bin Faisal is the prince favoured to take the crown. Before Mecca he ruled the Asir region for years, he is known as a highly intelligent, cultivated and cultured man. who speaks excellent English. He is a poet and a painter, I am surprised he wasn’t mentioned.

  5. My sincere apologies to typos which were made and have since been corrected! Mea Culpa!

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