As news from around the Arab world is dominated by popular uprisings, the overthrow of despotic regimes, and transitions to democracy, experts of one of the most authoritarian regimes, in Saudi Arabia, are occupied with a very different issue: trying to decipher the arcane succession politics of the Saudi royal family.
An unprecedented situation faces the Saudi rulers. Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz died on October 22 in a New York hospital, aged 85. He had been suffering from colon cancer for at least two years. He was next in line to the throne, currently occupied by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who is 87. It is the first time in the brief eighty-year history of the kingdom that the crown prince has died before acceding to the throne. This has thrown a spotlight on Saudi Arabia's octogenarian rulers, who sit atop an ever-expanding clan of princes, all vying for their share of recognition, power, and money.
Prince Sultan was one of the so-called 'Sudairi Seven', that is to say a son of the kingdom's founder, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, by Princess Hassa al-Sudairi, his most influential wife. The eldest of the Sudairi sons, Fahd, was king from 1982 to 2005. Abdullah, the current king is from a rival line of princes, called Shammar. Despite this, the Sudairi sons and their offspring are thought to represent the most influential bloc within the royal family. Indeed, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, one of the five remaining Sudairi sons, aged 78, was named crown prince on Thursday evening.
A new era?
With a dwindling number of sons of Ibn Saud, the founder, who are alive or fit to rule, an era is coming to an end in Saudi Arabia, argued AL AKHBAR, the leftist Lebanese daily, in an analysis piece published on October 24. Before Sultan, the fifteenth son of Ibn Saud, passed away, all eyes were on the king, who has undergone three operations in under a year, and returned in February this year from a three-month medical absence in New York. At Sultan's funeral on Tuesday, he wore a surgical mask. The swift appointment of Prince Nayef as crown prince was important, therefore, to reassure people that the monarchy was stable, despite the possibility that the king may soon, like his half-brother, be laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Riyadh's public cemetery.
The principle of succession laid down by Ibn Saud was one of agnatic seniority, with added condition of fitness to rule. By this system, the eldest fit male accedes to the throne. Thus power does not pass from father to son, as long as the king has brothers who are older than his sons, and capable of ruling. In practice, the current king has two brothers who are older than him, and there are several who are older than Nayef, but they have all been passed over, in some cases for health reasons, and in others for less obvious reasons.
In 2006 Abdullah created an Allegiance Council, in order to clarify the succession process, especially with the looming prospect of Saudi rule passing from Ibn Saud's sons to his huge number of grandsons. Ibn Saud's remaining sons, and the sons of his deceased sons, sit on the council. Its workings are unknown. It was officially responsible for confirming the appointment of Nayef as crown prince. However, this was in effect a fait accompli, since Abdulah had made Nayef second deputy prime minister in 2009, while Sultan was deputy prime minister, which signaled his intention for Nayef to succeed Sultan. At that time, Prince Abdul Rahman bin Abdul Aziz, another of the Sudairi Seven, and older than Nayef, left the kingdom in protest at Nayef's appointment and what it indicated, reported AL AKHBAR, and divided his time between London and Geneva. Prior to 2009 there was widespread speculation that Abdul Rahman, who appeared often in the media by the king's side, would succeed Sultan. His anger at being passed over suggests that the royal family is not as united as it would like to appear. His case also indicates that the succession principle laid down by Ibn Saud is open to interpretation and manipulation by factions within the royal family; this will make things even harder for the Allegiance Council when it will soon have to nominate a successor from the next generation of princes.
Sultan or Nayef: what's the difference?
Prince Sultan was minister of defense from 1962 until his death. He was known in Saudi Arabia as Sultan al-Khair, or Sultan of Good. "Sultan was always happiest when meeting regular Saudi citizens, listening to their problems and helping to solve them. He enjoyed giving more than he enjoyed receiving," recalled a captain in the Saudi navy, quoted in a report in THE NATIONAL, the UAE-based paper. Outside the kingdom he was known as Mr 10 Percent, for the large kickbacks he was said to receive from western companies concluding lucrative defense contracts with the kingdom, according to a NEW YORK TIMES primer on the House of Saud. During his tenure Saudi became the largest buyer of U.S. arms in the world. In concert with King Fahd, he was responsible for establishing close political and military cooperation between the kingdom and the U.S., according to AL AKHBAR's analysis. Sultan and Fahd were "the bridgehead" for American interference in the region, the Lebanese daily claimed.
Prince Nayef has been interior minister since 1975. Since 2001 he has played a leading role in Saudi's alliance with the U.S. in the "war on terror". Since that time his security forces have arrested more than 11,500 people for their alleged involvement in terrorism. Many of these people have been held without charge or trial for several years. Nayef is responsible for the Saudi domestic intelligence agency, the mabahith, which deals with the terrorist suspects. The mabahith has its own prisons and frequently ignores rulings from the Board of Grievances, Saudi's administrative court of appeal (see MER Weekly 6/08/2011). On Friday U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated King Abdullah on his selection of Nayef. "We in the United States know and respect [Prince Nayef] for his strong commitment to combating terrorism and supporting regional peace and security," said Obama.
Nayef is known to be close to the Wahhabi religious establishment. In 2009 he said that he saw no need for women to vote or participate in politics, according to THE NATIONAL. In general he is seen as a principal opponent of the movement within the royal family which professes to be in favour of gradual reform, represented by the king. Indeed Nayef was instrumental in the decision to send GCC troops - largely made up of Saudis - into Bahrain in mid-March to quell the month-old uprising against the rule of the Khalifa dynasty, reported AL AKHBAR.
As the new Saudi hierarchy settles down, attention will return to Abdullah's ailing condition. Observers have suggested that already over the last couple of years Nayef has been running the country's affair while Abdullah and Sutlan were both in bad health. So it may be that in the short term, not much will change in how the oil kingdom is governed. What does seem clear is that with Prince Nayef - the arch-conservative who is head of an eponymously named university for "security sciences " - is closer to absolute power, and the prospects for meaningful reform in the kingdom seem even more remote.