The American journal Foreign Policy runs a surprisingly speculative – and, I believe, not very well informed – article on stability in Saudi Arabia. Simon Henderson, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an organization with strong affinities toward Israeli policies, offers a lot of ideas about what might happen in the Kingdom following the death of the current king. Sure, his predictions are possible, but he make so many offhand remarks that he loses credibility.

There’s no doubt the the sons of the country’s founder and hitherto the only ones to become kings, are an aging group. Inevitably, there will be none of them left to succeed to the throne. When that happens (I think it likely within ten years), there will be a generational change. It’s probable, too, that members of the Al-Saud family are discussing succession within the family, but no one has a slightest clue who they might choose. I’m very confident that this is because none of them have made any decisions. They will wait until making a choice approaches necessity. I don’t think this makes the country any less stable than a country that changes leadership every four or eight years. No one knows who will be the next President of the US, or even when. It could happen as a result of this year’s elections or those four years from now. That’s hardly a cause for panic or even much concern.

Saudi Arabia has had six kings. The five successions have all occurred smoothly and promptly. The legacy of the Second Saudi State (1824–1891) shines brightly within the ruling family. They know that intra-family dissension leads to bad things and will work hard to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The arguments and consensus building may be opaque to foreign analysts, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

The Man Who Would Be King
Saudi Arabia’s ruling clique is dying off. It may be up to the new defense minister to guide the kingdom through a turbulent Middle East
Simon Henderson

The senior members of the Saudi royal family are looking increasingly frail, and the buzz in the Gulf is that there will be not just one, but two, changes in the kingdom’s leadership during the course of the next year. Although there is no fixed succession plan if that comes to pass, the newly minted defense minister, Prince Salman, looks well-placed to ascend to the throne.

The evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia’s current ruling clique is on its last legs. This week, the 89 year-old King Abdullah presided over the usual meeting of the council of ministers from the vantage point of his own palace in Riyadh rather than travelling to the council building. Propped in his chair, a cushion supporting his back, he looked as uncomfortable personally as he probably was politically with the state of the Arab world. It grieves him that Syria, a country with which he has family ties, is in such bloody turmoil, and it infuriates him that Washington does not share his view of the danger of Iran.

Within a day or so, the Saudi heir to the throne, the 79 year-old Crown Prince Nayef, is due to return home after more than a month away from the kingdom. He initially went to Morocco on “vacation,” but within a week traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, for “routine” medical tests, before flying to Algeria. Such an itinerary — and an absence of photographs of him since leaving Cleveland — has raised speculation that he is unwell. In recent months, he has added a stick to his wardrobe and regained a steroidal puffiness, renewing speculation that cancer, probably leukemia, has returned after an apparent respite of several years.

April:12:2012 - 06:20 | Comments & Trackbacks (9) | Permalink
9 Responses to “Guessing Kings”
  1. 1
    hannah Said:
    April:12:2012 - 10:15 

    Smoothly and promptly? Well, as smoothly as can be expected when there’s been a forced abdication (Saud’s) or an assassination (Faisal’s)… though that supports your statement that “They know that intra-family dissension leads to bad things and will work hard to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

    And yeah, this article is pretty bad if it talks about succession and doesn’t bring up the Allegience Council. It’s untested, sure, but it shows that there’s some thought going on about this, albeit behind an opaque, soundproof curtain.

  2. 2
    John Burgess Said:
    April:12:2012 - 10:26 

    @Hannah: While a particular reign may not have ended smoothly, the successions did.

  3. 3
    Barkley Rosser Said:
    April:12:2012 - 12:03 

    I see no reason to believe that Salman would have any particular edge for being a second generation successor. The most respected of all the first generation was the late King Faisal, of the al-Sheikh family, descendants of Muhammed ibn Wah’hab, who formed the alliance in 1740 between the al-Sa’ud and advocates of Hanbali Sunnism, now known by his name as Wah’habism (not to be confused with Egyptian Salafism). Last time I checked, his face was on all the paper money except for the one riyal note, which features his dad, Abdulaziz.

    Faisal had 7 sons, one of whom is now the world’s longest serving Foreign Minister, Sa’ud, following Faisal who represented KSA at the Versailles conference at the age of 16. Another is Emir Turki, longtime head of Saudi intel (and the man who selected Osama bin Laden to oversee the Saudi Mujahedin in Pakistan/Afghanistan against Soviet rule in Afghanistan), who has since held numerous positions including Ambassador to the US and UK. Others of them are also serious contenders, such as Khalid, currently Governor of Mecca. Frankly, the al-Faisals are a much more likely lot to get it than Salman, although the obvious candidate, Sa’ud, is reported to be suffering from health problems like the older generation.

  4. 4
    hannah Said:
    April:12:2012 - 13:16 

    Legit, I’ll give you that.

  5. 5
    Matt Reed Said:
    April:12:2012 - 13:55 

    Henderon’s article also suffers from sloppy conjecture. He says, “last week, Salman visited London in a major demonstration of Riyadh’s close military supply relationship with Britain, its most significant link after its longtime alliance with the United States. Bypassing the U.S. capital may conveniently have served to emphasize that the White House’s apparent obsession with political change in the Middle East is not appreciated in Riyadh.” I guess Henderson didn’t know that Prince Salman has been scheduled to visit Washington for some time. He met with President Obama today at the White House.

  6. 6
    John Burgess Said:
    April:12:2012 - 20:32 

    @Matt: And Hillary Clinton was in Riyadh earlier this week. Signs of a failing relationship, for sure… not.

  7. 7
    Saudi Jawa Said:
    April:13:2012 - 10:00 

    @Barkley Rosser
    Actually, Faisal’s image was removed from Saudi currency when Fahd took over and placed his own picture on the bank notes. In turn, it was changed again when Abdullah ascended. The only note to survive this musical chairs game is the 500 Riyal note, which retains the portrait of their father Abdulaziz.

    I remember that day well. I was a kindergarten brat and was waiting to get my usual daily allowance of 2 Riyals, when dad brought out a stack of crisp, brand new, silver colored 1 Riyal bills. I remember thinking that they were the coolest looking things ever! Until I tried to buy candy with them and the lady behind the counter refused to take them because it was the first time she had seen them…

  8. 8
    Saudi Jawa Said:
    April:13:2012 - 10:07 

    @Barkley Rosser
    And while we’re singing the Al Faisals’s praise, we shouldn’t forget their mother: Queen Iffat. A remarkable woman by any standard.

  9. 9
    Barkley Rosser Said:
    April:14:2012 - 00:18 

    Saudi Jawa,

    Shukran for the corrections on who is on the notes more recently.

    On the deeper question I think in the end for the second generation transition it may come down to the al-Faisals versus the sons of the late Crown Prince and longtime Minister of Defense and member of the Sudeiri Seven, Emir Sultan. Curious that is son the longtime ambassador to the US is not on the list (too close to the Bushes and done in by 9/11?), with Salman now the candidate of that faction.

    Needless to say, the al-Faisals (and I recognize the redundancy of putting a “the” in front of an “al”), are more qualified and revered within KSA over any mere descendant of the late Crown Prince. The oldest, Muhammmed bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz, is the world’s leader in the steadily growing and massively important global Islamic banking movement, and he is third or fourth tier to Sa’ud or Turki or maybe even Khalid…

    I am now going to reveal a secret story that may be relevant to all of this, a matter on which I have deeply secret knowledge, never before publicly revealed. So, one reason why Salman or his brother might have an edge is that their late father, Emir Sultan, built the hospital that took care of the mother of the favorite wife of Abdulaziz, Assa al-Sudieri, his first cousin and the mother of the Sudeiri Seven, which included both the late King Fahd and Sultan, as well as the current Crown Prince, Nayef.

    So, in her last days Assa was constantly attended at any moment by 8 nurses, who worked on 8-hour shifts, 24 of them in all. She wanted to die, constantly pulling the tubes stuck into her out and complaining loudly abouj the whole setup. But, her sons maintained the setup and came on a regular basis to curry her favor, Sultan, Fahd, Nayef, and the rest of them, always with their massive and ridiculous entourages. She was at this time the most powrful person in KSA, an ironic example of the fact that in the most sexist socieities the most powerful person in the end may well be a women, the one who is the mother of the most powerful men, and so she was.

    It must be remembered that KSA was unified by the martial and marital skills of Abdulaziz. He had over 100 wives, but never more than 4 in line with Qu’ranic rules, keeping four towers on his palace for each wife. As he conquered a tribe, he would marry a wife, then divorcing one of the previoius ones, always sending her back to her tribe with lots of gold and no complaints.

    But, of course, Assa was his first cousin and from his tribe. So, she knew all the dirt on the complicated tribal and marital relationships that underlay the very existence of modern Saudi Arabia. Her sons came to consult with her both to provide her with information and to receive in return her information and her advice and blessing.

    So, maybe in the end the transition will come down to the very old conflict between the traditionally wealthiest and most powerful Sudeiris and the most revered and clearly most competent al-Faisals. So be it.

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