Royal Saudi succession
Of all the many problems facing Saudi Arabia, the problem of succession
after the death of King Fahd is the one most likely to produce a configuration
which could lead to the demise of the House of Saud.
The Problem The succession process is a contest between the heir apparent,
Prince Abdullah, and Prince Sultan, the Defence Minister and the designated
second-in-line to the throne. Talk of skipping them and going to a second
generation younger prince is wishful thinking. The deteriorating situation
within the Kingdom excludes considering others and there are no mechanisms
in place to effect this without creating more problems than they would solve.
Abdullah is heir apparent and with the perfunctory approval of senior members
of the family and ulemas should become King on Fahd's death. There is no
open challenge to this traditional process, but there is a problem on who
should be Abdullah's heir apparent. Sultan and his full brothers (Sudeiris)
would not give allegience (Baia'a) to Abdullah unless he accepts their demands
which include appointing Sultan as Crown Prince.
Judged by the seniority system, Sultan doesn't qualify. There are others
who are older. Also, appointing Sultan as heir apparent is giving in to
the Sudeiris, the seven full-brothers who occupy the cabinet posts of defence
and interior, most of the governorships of the country and who weild considerable
power as the most cohesive cluster of brothers, a family within the extended
House of Saud family. Abdullah is known to oppose their vice like control
of power and is determined to reduce it. Refusing to appoint Sultan heir
apparent would be a natural step in that direction.
Clipping The Wings:
Abdullah's attitude towards the Sudeiris, his determination to clip their
wings, has been given a new impetus by the contents of the edict creating
the Consultative Council in 1994. Among the many articles of this edict
is one which entrusts the appointment of an heir apparent exclusively to
the King, in other words abdallah has been provided with the legal instrument
to bypass Sultan.
Prince Abdallha, without any full brothers, still has a solid power base
within the country. He is the head of the national Guard, a powerful institution
of over 35.000 soldiers, almost the same size as the army. Moreover, he
enjoys the support of most of his half-brothers, including Misha'l, Bander
(both older than Sultan) and Nawaf. Within the younger generation, Foreign
Minister Saud al Faisal and his brother Turkie, head of intelligence, the
leaders of the important Faisal branch, are also reported to be in Abdullah's
camp. Outside the family, Abdullah's simple Bedouin way hold some appeal
Abdullah's power, though diverse, is extensive.
Sultan's power is an extension of the united Sudeiri power. Furthermore
the office of Minister of Defence gives him control of the army and air
force, not as solidly as Abdullah controls the National Guard but in a helpful
manner. Beyond ministers and governors, the Sudeiris have generals in the
armed forces, officials throughout the country and several ambassadors overseas.
Sultan's is not a numerous constituency but an important, impressive one.
American and British attitudes towards the succession process differ, but
both can influence it. The Americans traditionally supported the Sudeiri
group because they see them as more capable of fulfilling the American Agenda.
However they try now to be more realistic in the sense of accepting Abdullah
and help events towards settling with a stable Kingdom with Abdullah in
charge. That change in their attitude happened after they concluded that
it would be difficult to get rid of Abdullah.. The British support Abdullah
because they oppose interfering with the established process. The attitude
of the Americans and the British is not only the expression of military
deals and big contracts. It has to do more with the way the Americans and
the British analyse the local politics and the power structure in the Kingdom.
It is unlikely that official scholars and ulemas will demonstrate any initiative
and they are inclined towards voting in favour of tradition, for the heir
apparent. The young educated Saudis support Abdullah because he has not
been tainted by scandals. The Islamists find Abdullah relatively more acceptable
for the same reasons as well as for his moderate attitude towards them.
With the army's ephemeral support for Sultan and Abdullah's solid National
Guard base, the security forces are a potential third fource capable of
tipping the scale one way or the other. But although they number 250.000
and are under Prince Nayef, a full-brother and supporter of Sultan, they
are not likely to exercise much influence. They are not equipped or trained
as a force capable of becoming the swing element in any confrontation.
The distrust between the Sudeiris and Abdullah has never been a secret,
but it has become much worse of late. There are reports of attempts to have
Abdullah give up his claim to the throne, others which speak of Sudeiri
attempts to use the Council of Religious Ulemas to force him to do that
and unverfied ones of attempts on his life, including an attempt to poison
him. It all points towards an exasperation of the succession process.
Last year, the US Government tried to influence the succession process and
intercept the march towards confrontation. During a secretly arranged trip
by Abdullah to their country, the Americans tried to talk him into defusing
the situation by expressing his willingness to appoint Salman heir apparent
and prime minister. But the American attempt to control the drift towards
chaos which is consuming the country included provisions for more direct
American control of the Saudi family budget and other expenditure and the
reduction of interference in business by members of the royal family. The
Americans are not confident of how much Abdullah is committed to that agreement.
Sultan's recent visit to the United States undoubtedly had to do with the
overall succession process and the recent illness of the King which saw
him code power to Abdullah and then take it back in an abrupt manner which
led to speculation that Sultan and his full-brothers had objected even to
the temporary clevation of Abdullah to de facto governance. In fact, during
Abdullah's brief period as acting head of state, the American Ambassador
held several meetings with Sultan to talk him into keeping his objections
under check and to refrain from precipitating a crisis. Sultan and his brothers
are known to have expressed misgivings about the Ambassador's advice.
Not To Last Long:
The King suffers from several serious illnesses and is not expected to last
long. The prospects of his death find the Kingdom living in the shadow of
uncertainty. With no apparent movement on either side wishing to control
the country after Fahd, the most likely scenario is a confrontation over
the appointment of Abdallh's heir apparent. The Sudeiris are unlikely to
consent to Abdullah's assumption of power without guarantees of Sultan's
elevation to the position of his heir apparent.
But there is a chance, however small, of Sultan being bypassed in favour
of one of his full-brothers. This would waken the objection of the Sudeiris,
eliminate Sultan as a counterweight to Abdullah and allow the new King to
make his appointments unhindered. But once again, this is not a totally
trouble-free prospect and the Sudairis are likely to want to wield power
regardless of how they are represented in government.
A more likely scenario is for Abdullah to postpone appointing his heir apparent
for sometime. This would give him a chance to consolidate his power and
appoint a non-Sudeiri heir apparent. But this is easy to discern and the
Sudairis are not likely to accept it.
There is always the chance that Abdullah might be denied the position of
King altogether. This, given the nature of the contest and Bedouin mental
makeup of the contestants, would lead to immediate civil war. However, this
prospect should not be dismissed along lines accepted by believers in the
royal family's ability to bind together, because none of them possess the
mental capacity to think of national or family interests and place them
ahead of personal ambition. There are subsidiary scenarios to the three
main ones. There could be a pro-Sudeiri or pro-Abdullah coup. There could
be a gathering of the clan to remove the source of the trouble, both Abdullah
and the Sudeiris. There could be an independent coup by the armed forces
with the support of strong Islamist groups or even American support. There
could be a royal-army-Islamist alliance with would intercept the whole process.
The list is endless. The Americans are not expected to keep silent. They
will move to guarantee the flow of oil. Their move would either be by direct
military or logistic support to one of the wings. If that fails they will
consider direct occupation. That is not going to be occupation of the whole
Arabia. It would rather be occupation of eastern province where the oil
Prospect Not Good:
The prospects for a peaceful transfer of power from Fahd to Abdullah, never
good in the past, have the country's political, economic and social problems
as background. The Islamists are gaining favour with the people who object
to the House of Saud's interpretation of their religion, their determination
to continue with absolute rule and their insensitivity to the legitimate
calls for freedom of speech and democracy. The per capita income of the
average Saudi has declined from $13.600 in 1981 to $4.200 in 1995. Unemployment
among educated Saudis is over 25 per cent and among other groups only slightly
behind. Contractors are not getting paid on time and the telephone, electricity
and other services in the country are in very bad shape. The county is suffering
a huge drug problem and disintegration of family and tribal values.
The need to remedy these problems will, according to American and British
sources, be delayed by a feud, violent or otherwise, over succession. Both
countries have examined and reexamined the Saudi situation looking for solutions
but have so far produced none. A conflict over succession could prove to
be the last straw and we are talking about the land of camels.
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