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Inside Saudi Succession

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Saudi Sucession--a Desert Legacy

September 14th 2009

Arab Topics - King Abdullah2
King Abdullah

The modern state of Saudi Arabia was founded by King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud) in 1932. From a Saudi perspective, however, the kingdom is far older – certainly older than the United States – despite occasional interruptions in Saudi rule and even though the Western notion of sovereign independence was not achieved by the Saudis until this century.

As founder of the modern Saudi state, Ibn Saud could trace his forebears to the middle of the fifteenth century, when they arrived in the center of Arabia from the Hasa region to the east. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, his ancestors had become local rulers of an area centered on the settlement of Dariyah, near modern-day Riyadh. The identified patriarch of the family was Saud bin Muhammad, who was succeeded as sheikh (local ruler) upon his death in 1725 by his son Muhammad, who is usually described as the first ruler of the al-Saud dynasty. (King Abdulaziz was given the name Ibn Saud by the British, recalling this ancestor, Muhammad bin Saud, or Ibn Saud)

In 1745, Muhammad bin Saud, who had already achieved a reputation as a tough fighter in defending the local date palm plantations from marauding tribes, gave refuge to a Muslim scholar from a nearby village who had been expelled for preaching an Islamic orthodoxy that criticized local practices. The scholar was Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, and his strict interpretations of Island ("Wahhabism") found favor with Muhammad bin Saud.

The two men became allies and hatched a joint plan. Combining Muhammad bin Saud’s tribal leadership and fighting prowess with Abdul Wahhab’s religious zeal, they planned a jihad (struggle) to conquer and purify Arabia. The strategy was simple: those who did not accept the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam would either be killed or forced to flee. The relationship was cemented by family intermarriage, including the marriage of Muhammad bin Saud to one of Abdul Wahhab’s daughters. The alliance was the beginning of what is now referred to as the first Saudi state.

When Muhammad bin Saud died in 1765, Abdul Wahab continued the military campaign of tribal raids, partnering now with the sheikh’s son, Abdulaziz bin Muhammad. They ended up controlling most of the central area of Arabia known as the Nejd, including the town of Riyadh, today the capital of Saudi Arabia. But the limits of their power and influence soon became apparent. To the southwest, the rules of Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine, blocked their advance, while tribal entities in the north, south, and east countered Wahhabi raids with campaigns of their own.

Abdul Wahhab died in 1792, but Abdulaziz bin Muhammad continued the raiding parties, pillaging the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala (in what is now Iraq) in 1802 and conquering Mecca the following year. Such activity and success prompted reaction. Abdulaziz was assassinated in 1803, probably by a Shiite seeking revenge for the desecration of the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein in Karbala. Also, the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), who regarded himself as the guardian of Mecca, asked the rule of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, to mount an expedition to regain Mecca as well as Medina, the second holiest city, which had fallen to Wahhabi forces in 1805.

Confronted by Egyptian forces, the Wahhabis, under the command of Abdulaziz’s son Saud, lost control of both Mecca and Medina. Upon Saud’s death in 1814, his son Abdullah concluded a truce with the Ottoman and Egyptian forces. In 1816, another Egyptian army pushed into the Nejd region of central Arabia, razing Dariyah in 1818. Abdullah was sent as a captive to Constantinople and later executed. Abdullah’s brother Mishari briefly laid claim to the throne in 1820, but in most Saudi eyes the first Saudi state had ended with the death of Abdullah.

The Second Saudi State

In 1824, Turki bin Abdullah, whose father was one of Abdullaziz’s brothers, evicted the Egyptians from the Nejd and occupied Riyadh. Egyptian forces were pushed back to the Red Sea coastal area of the Hejaz region that includes Mecca and Medina. Turki’s claim to the throne was contested, however, and he was assassinated in 1834 and succeeded by his son Faisal, the future grandfather of Ibn Saud. When Egyptian forces returned to the Nejd in 1838, Faisal was captured and sent as a prisoner to Cairo. In his place the Egyptians installed Khalid (a brother of Abdullah and Mishari), who dies in 1841. Abdullah bin Thunayyan, a great grandson of Muhammad bin Saud’s brother, ruled for two years until Faisal escaped from Cairo in 1843 and returned to reestablish his rule with the aid of the Rashid tribe.

Faisal’s second reign was notable for its length (twenty-two years), its restoration of order, and its comparative prosperity. To this day, Saudi princes lay claim to this heritage by describing themselves as al-Faisal al-Saud – for example, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Faisal al-Saud. But this era is also remembered for the chaos that ensued after Faisal’s death in 1865, when two of his sons squabbled over the succession. The eldest, Abdullah, assumed the throne initially but lost the position to his brother Saud in 1871. Concurrently, the family also lost control over much of central and eastern Arabia, where it had previously exerted influence.

On Saud’s death in 1875, leadership of the family passed briefly to a third brother, Abdulrahman. But Abdullah regained power the same year and retained the position until his death in 1889, when Abdulrahman became head of the clan again. By this time, the Rashid tribe, which had ruled Hail (the area northwest of Riyadh) at Faisal’s request since 1835, had, with Ottoman backing, extended its influence over the remaining Saudi territory. After two years as ruler, Abdulrahman was forced to flee with his family in 1891 to the independent sheikhdom of Kuwait, marking the end of the second Saudi state. Official Saudi accounts emphasize the role of external forces and rival tribes like the al-Rashid in destroying the first and second Saudi states, preferring to ignore the effect of Squabbling over power within the Saudi dynasty.

The Third Saudi State

In 1902, Abdulrahman’s twenty-two-year-old son, Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud), led a group of fifty armed men out of Kuwait and, in a daring night raid, seized control of Riyadh back from the Rashid tribe. Realizing that his son was a more effective leader, Abdulrahman abdicated in his favor.

Regaining control of former Saudi territory proved a difficult task for Ibn Saud. In the next ten years he succeeded only in ousting the rival Rashid clan from the Qassim region, which lies between Riyadh and Hail to the northwest. His advance was contested from within the al-Saud by the descendants of his father’s older brothers, who threw in their lot with the Rashids. Ibn Saud captured three members of this clan in 1906; however, instead of killing them, he offered them a home and a place in the family. But an attempt by two nephews to poison him in 1910 illustrated the treacherous nature of this side of the family, and the rebellion continued for another six years. (For this and other instances of treachery, the clan became known as the Araif, a term usually applied to camels that are lost in one tribal raid and then recaptured in another.)

Ibn Saud’s military prowess was reinforced in 1912 when he inaugurated the Ikhwan (brethren), a religious brotherhood of nomadic tribes, and assigned them the task of conquering Arabia in the name of Wahhabism. The eastern region of Hasa on the Persian Gulf coast fell to the Ikhwan in 1913, and three years later the last and most powerful of the Rashids, Saud bin Rashid, surrendered.

Adopting a technique for which he became renowned, Ibn Saud moved swiftly to block the threat of opposition from the Rashid clan by marrying Saud bin Rashid’s widow, adopting her children, and making peace with her relatives. In a similar vein, Ibn Saud had earlier pardoned Saud al-Kabir, an opposing relative, and given his favorite sister, Nura, to him as a wife. Ibn Saud’s purpose for facilitating such marriages was blatantly political: it brought opposing groups onto his side in the conquest of the country.

In 1921, Ibn Saud’s forces seized the Asir region from Yemen and finally took control of the Hail area from the Rashids. By the end of 1925, the Ikhwan had also conquered the Hejaz area, giving Ibn Saud control of Mecca and Medina. The rule of the Hejaz, Sharif Hussein, was forced to flee, but the British, grateful for the help Hussein had given them against the Ottoman Turks, installed his sons Abdullah and Faisal as the rulers of Transjordan and Iraq, respectively.

By now the Ikhwan were operating virtually out of control. They had carried out massacres at Taif in 1924 and in the Nejd in 1929, as well as initiating raids deep into Transjordan and Iraq, which were British protectorates. In response, British forces used aircraft against the Ikhwan, killing them with machine guns. The British, who had reached border agreements with Ibn Saud, pressed him to respect the accords. Ibn Saud, realizing he had to take action against the Ikhwan, started to suppress them, eventually defeating their remnants at the battle of Sabila in 1929.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Is Declared

Since 1927 Ibn Saud had called himself King of the Hejaz, the Nejd, and its dependencies, and in September 1932, he declared himself king of the new country, Saudi Arabia. By the time he died in 1953, he had fathered forty-four sons, thirty-five of whom survived him. This feat of fatherhood was accomplished with twenty-two wives; although, in keeping with Islamic tradition, he was never married to more than four at a time. In addition Abdulaziz had four concubines; he would also have been offered a young female companion by his host whenever he had to stay away from home overnight while traveling. (Any offspring from such temporary unions were not counted as his official children, but would have conferred honor and perhaps royal subsidies on the host family or tribe.)

In the early years as he consolidated his rule, Ibn Saud assigned only his oldest sons to government roles. His son Faisal had effectively been his foreign minister after 1919; after 1926 Faisal was the local ruler of the Hejaz. Saud, Faisal’s older brother and, since the death of Turki in 1919, the oldest son, took on a similar role for the central Nejd province in 1932.

Ibn Saud looked to other branches of the family, as well as to loyal tribes, to assign other roles. With such an extensive family tree, the candidates were numerous, but the choice was difficult. As king, Ibn Saud had to spread his relatives throughout the country in order to extend his control, while denying them sufficient power to contest his leadership or demand a right to the succession.

With shrewdness, the king achieved a balance of tensions by building consensus in the Bedouin tradition of tribal democracy, whereby the sheikh reaches agreement with the heads of the different families, a method that continues to epitomize decisionmaking in the kingdom today. In 1933, Ibn Saud defused potential problems among his own sons and other relatives by making it clear that Faisal would be Saud’s crown prince when the latter became king. Family loyalty, it was felt, would focus more readily around a partnership than a single figure. To give legitimacy to the decision, Ibn Saud had it approved by the ulama (a group of high-level clerics).

In 1947 an American doctor who examined Ibn Saud reported that apart from arthritis in his knees, the kind had a life expectancy of at least ten to fifteen more years. Three years later, however, other U.S. medical experts found him increasingly senile and permanently confined to a wheelchair. He died in November 1953, eight months after delegating some of his powers to Crown Prince Saud and a council of ministers. On the day of Ibn Saud’s death, Saud was proclaimed the new king of Saudi Arabia, and he named the next in line, Faisal, crown prince and heir apparent.

It is uncertain whether Ibn Saud had a clear idea that succession after Saud and Faisal would proceed down the line from brother to brother among his sons. Ibn Saud’s thinking was possibly that apart from demonstrating pride in his offspring, he should avoid any repetition of earlier disasters in al-Saud family history. Etched in his memory was the knowledge that succession had often been crucially mishandled in the more than two hundred years of his family’s dominance of the Arabian Peninsula. On occasion, arguments between brothers and cousins had led to temporary weakening of the dominance of the al-Saud and, at other times, had resulted in the total loss of power.

The Crisis Years of Saud’s Reign

In many ways Saud was a strange appointment as king, reflecting, perhaps, uncertainty rather than confidence within the royal family. As early as 1933, when he was appointed crown prince, Saud’s leadership qualities were considered inferior to those of his immediate younger brother, Faisal. By the time Ibn Saud died, the disparity in abilities was even more striking: Saud, according to a Western diplomat stationed in the kingdom at the time, was "already known as a good-for-nothing." A spendthrift, Saud celebrated his accession by demolishing one lavish palace and building an even more opulent one in its place.

However, Saud’s main challenges were not economic but rather what he saw as the sins of British and U.S. imperialism. Although King Farouk of Egypt had been overthrown by Egyptian officers led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, and other Arab monarchies faced republican challenges, Saud did not feel threatened, at least not at first. In inter-Arab politics, he allied himself with Egypt against the Hashemites and the British. Though his political vision dictated that he blame Washington for the establishment of the state of Israel, he needed the American relationship to counterbalance the British patrons of Iraq and Jordan. His hostility to Britain was increased by his ager toward London for blocking a Saudi bid to seize the Buraimi oasis, on the border of what is now the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

In 1955, King Saud jointed Egypt and Syria in a joint command against the Baghdad Pact, a British-led alliance with Turkey, Iraq, and Pakistan that was intended to stop the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East. In 1956, he supported Egypt when British and French forces seized the Suez Canal, but the rising power of Nasserist pan-Arabism began to make Saud feel insecure. After the crisis he worked to improve relations with Iraq and distanced Saudi Arabia from Egypt. At home, Saud was maneuvering to prevent Faisal’s eventual succession by engineering the accession of his own son, Muhammad.

In March 1958, Saud was implicated in an attempt to assassinate President Nasser of Egypt. The international embarrassment gave other members of the royal family the opening they had been seeking. They called for a full transfer of domestic, foreign, and financial policy to Crown Prince Faisal, although Saud was not asked to give up the throne. Two days later, the transfer of power was announced on Mecca Radio. The following month, Faisal issued a new foreign policy statement declaring rapprochement with Britain and France, and drew up a charter for the council of ministers. He also distanced himself from the United States and adopted a policy of neutrality in inter-Arab affairs, a change that was read as pro-Egyptian. In May, he discovered that the kingdom’s financial reserves were nearly zero, and he had to prune budgets and suspend payments on government debts to restore fiscal stability. In June, he banned luxury imports.

Infuriated at being sidelined, Saud was determined to regain power, and Faisal’s economic austerity played into his hands. Saud was able to use his personal funds for building projects attractive to the tribes, while also appearing to encourage reform by offering a form of representative government. By December 1960, support for Faisal had eroded so substantially that he resigned. IN turn, Saud formed a new council of ministers, naming himself as prime minister. His brother Talal was appointed minister of finance, but he resigned a few months later when he realized that Saud’s interest in constitutional change was very limited. A year later, in a further twist, Saud, under pressure from senior princes, put Faisal in charge while he went abroad temporarily for medical treatment. This time, Faisal was determined not to relinquish the position.

Despite Faisal’s return to effective power, to the public eye, the chaos of the al-Saud continued. Prince Talal openly sided with President Nasser by congratulating him when Egypt test-fired a long-range missile. He went to Cairo despite Nasser’s statement that in order "to liberate all Jerusalem, the Arab peoples must first liberate Riyadh." Talal was joined in the Egyptian capital by his brother Fawwaz, his half brother Badr, and a cousin; the group was dubbed the "free princes" or "liberal princes." Back in Riyadh, Talal’s half brother Abdulmohsin voiced support for the group and for Talal’s appeal for the creation in Saudi Arabia of a constitutional democracy within a monarchical framework.

In the meantime, Saud’s continued ill health allowed Faisal to strengthen his own position. In March 1962 he appointed Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani as oil minister, and a few months later he altered the council of minister, dropping some of Saud’s sons and replacing them with his brothers Fahd and Sultan. By the end of 1963 it had become clear that Saud was having increasing doubts as to whether he would ever be able to regain full powers.

In March 1964, Faisal provoked a crisis in Riyadh by issuing an ultimatum (delivered by the Grand Mufti) stating that he intended to retain power and wanted Saud’s acceptance of this state of affairs. Saud refused and mobilized his royal guard. Faisal countered by ordering the much stronger national guard to surround Saud’s forces. The royal guard surrendered and the ulama issued a fatwa (legal opinion) transferring executive powers to Faisal while still allowing Saud to remain king. Eight months later, Saud abdicated and went into exile in Europe, dying in Greece in 1969.

Faisal did not appoint a crown prince until the spring of 1965. The obvious contender was the next in line, Muhammad, but he was considered unsuitable due to his bad temper and frequent drunkenness. He was known within the al-Saud as Abu Sharrain"father of the twin evils." (He later ordered the death by shooting of his granddaughter after she was found to be having an adulterous affair; her lover was beheaded. The story was told in a 1980 British television docudrama, Death of a Princess, after which, at Saudi insistence, the British ambassador was forced to temporarily return to London.)

Muhammad stepped aside from his claim to the throne, and after several weeks, Faisal chose Muhammad’s younger full brother Khalid. Although this confirmed the trend of the throne going from brother to brother among the sons of Ibn Saud, at the time it was seen as confirmation that leadership should be passed to the eldest acceptable candidate, without specifying whether it should b brother or son. Neither Muhammad nor Khalid would have been considered based on administrative experience or ability; both were uninterested in actually running the country. Khalid’s qualifications were that he was calmer than Muhammad and an able conciliator. This was a much needed role in the al-0Saud after the discord of Saud’s reign. Faisal retained the title and office of prime minister but made Crown Prince Khalid deputy prime minister. (In 1968, Faisal created for Fahd the position of second deputy prime minister, effectively, given Khalid’s disinterest, the kings’ administrative deputy and, it was speculated, crown prince in waiting.)

The Assassination of Faisal

Faisal’s reign came to an abrupt end in March 1975, when he was shot by a twenty-six-year-old nephew, also named Faisal, who was the son of Musaid bin Abdulaziz. The U.S.-educated prince was probably seeking revenge for the death of his ultrareligious brother Khalid, who had been shot by Saudi police in 1965 during a demonstration against the introduction into the kingdom of television, which he considered counter to Islam.

The shock of Faisal’s death was doubled by the realization that the assassin came from within the family. The national learned of it from a Riyadh Radio announcer, who broke down sobbing while delivering the news. A subsequent broadcast the same day declared that Khalid had become king.

The appointment of Fahd as crown prince was less straightforward. Two brothers born before him, Nasir and Saad, theoretically had prior claims but both were considered weak candidates. By contrast, Fahd had served as minister of education from 1953 to 1960 and minister of interior from 1962 to 1968, gaining substantial experience and an unequaled reputation as a successful technocrat, both of which the increasingly wealthy kingdom needed. In fact, Fahd’s credentials were such that some foreign diplomats in the kingdom thought Khalid would be passed over entirely and Fahd would become the new king. But they underestimated the al-Saud’s sense of family unity.

The key layer in the action was the previously passed-over Muhammad, who met with Khalid and the other brother in Riyadh the evening of the assassination. Greeting Khalid, he gave him the baya (oath of loyalty) and then turned and gave Fahd the same oath. In doing so, he established the line of succession, which was not challenged by other brothers present. Indeed, Nasir and Saad were said to have been the next princes to swear their allegiance.

The Death of Khalid, and a Surprisingly Smooth Transition

Khalid’s reign was, not surprisingly, undynamic. The tribulations of government including the fall of the shah of Iran in January 1979 and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious fanatics in November that same year were handled for the most part by Fahd, who held the title of first deputy prime minister but was in effect prime minister. (Upon meeting British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Khalid is reputed to have said he would be happy to discuss falcons with her, but for all matters of administration she should talk to Fahd.)

In succession terms, it was the appointment of Abdullah, commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), as second deputy prime minister, and therefore notionally crown prince in waiting, that became increasingly contentious within the royal family. Khalid was plagued by ill health. In 1972, as crown prince, he had undergone open heart surgery. In 1977 he had two operations on his left hip; in 1978 he had a heart bypass operation. There were persistent rumors that he would have to give up the throne to Fahd, with Abdullah becoming crown prince, or at least confer the title of prime minister on Fahd, with Abdullah as deputy prime minister. Some princes were said to prefer Sultan, Fahd’s oldest full brother, who had served as minister of defense and aviation since 1962, as next in line, instead of Abdullah. Fahd himself was believed to prefer Sultan as well and was backed by his other full brothers, known as the al-Fahd or the "Sudairi Seven" after the tribe of their mother. Together they were the largest single group of full brothers among the sons of ibn Saud and often appeared to act as a group; Ibn Saud’s other wives had produced only three, two, or a single son, as was the case with Abdullah.

Whether Abdullah should be pressed to give up command of the SANG as the price for his appointment was the subject of family debate. Abdullah resisted this notion, not having a full brother to whom he could have passed the role. He also felt hat if he himself lacked command of the SANG forces, Sultan, as minister of defense, would be physically able to stop him from succeeding to the throne. The SANG acts as a praetorian guard for the al-Saud (thought there is also a small royal guard). Except for SANG barracks, Saudi military bases are normally located at a distance from the main towns and cities, probably to prevent a military coup. SANG personnel are recruited from tribes traditionally loyal to the al-Saud, and they receive training from both the United States and Britain. Apart from protecting the royal family, they also guard key infrastructure sites, including oil and gas facilities.

The issue of Abdullah retaining the command of the Sang was reportedly debated in Riyadh by 250 princes in August 1977. At the meeting, or around this time, ,Fahd is said to have offered to appoint Abdullah as his crown prince, after Khalid’s eventual death, but only if Abdullah agreed to vie up control of the national guard. Under the proposal, the SANG would either stay as a separate force, but under the command of Prince Salman (another of Fahd’ full brothers), or be integrated into the regular armed forces under Sultan. Abdullah rejected the offer, however, and the line of succession remained unresolved. In May 1982, when Khalid died, Fahd was proclaimed king by senior princes led by Prince Muhammad, and the new king nominated Abdullah as crown prince the same day. But the campaign of opposition to Abdullah’s appointment by Fahd and his brothers, particularly Sultan, had scarred the new crown prince. For years, Abdullah could barely hide his resentment over what had happened to him and his distrust of Fahd and his full brothers.

Fahd’s Attempt to Set the Succession

On becoming Kind, Fahd created renewed fears about the succession among his half brothers by naming Sultan as second deputy prime minister, the crown-prince-in-waiting slot. Fahd’s non-Sudairi half brothers, including Crown Prince Abdullah, feared a Sudairi monopoly on succession, with either Fahd or Sultan eventually passing it down a generation to one of his sons.

Opposition to Sultan’s appointment as second deputy prime minister came in particular from two other half brother, Musaid and Bandar, both of whom, like Abdullah, were born in 1923 and therefore were older than Sultan, who was born in 1924. The protestations of Musaid could be ignored because it was his son who had assassinated King Faisal. But the interests of Bandar were more difficult to disregard. Not only did he want to be the next in line but he also wanted to have Sultan’s job as minister of defense. A family dispute developed, and Bandar’s claim on the defense ministry was ultimately rejected on the grounds that he had no previous administrative experience. But, as compensation, two of his sons were given important jobs: Mansour bin Bandar as commander of the Jeddah Air Base and Faisal bin Bandar as governor of Qassim province.
Abdullah remained sensitive to the notion that the throne would still slip from his grasp, particularly in March 1992 when Fahd issued the Basic Law of Governance. Seen as an attempt to write down Saudi laws and procedures, on succession matters it merely confirmed what everybody thought anyway: "Rule passes to the sons of the founding kind, Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Faisal al-Saud, and to their children’s children. The most upright among them is to receive allegiance in accordance with [the principles of] the Holy Koran and the tradition of the venerable Prophet."

But the next sentence disturbed Abdullah: "The king chooses the heir apparent and relives him [of his duties] by royal order." Abdullah saw this clause as threatening his right to the throne. The crown prince began to apply himself to ensuring his position was strengthened. Among other steps were efforts to rid himself of a debilitating stutter, which impaired his public performances. (A female American speech therapist was credited with this success.)

Abdullah’s suspicions were likely rekindled after Fahd suffered a stroke in November 1995. Officially described as needing to be in the hospital for "some ordinary checkups," he was subsequently said to be "in good form." Yet on January 1, 1996, Fahd, via a royal order, asked Abdullah "to undertake the affairs of state while we enjoy rest." Abdullah became regent, but for just six weeks. By mid-February, Fahd returned to his duties, chairing a meeting of the council of ministers: in reality, however, Abdullah remained de facto ruler even though rival princes denied him the legitimacy of the title. Meanwhile Fahd declined, suffering a series of further strokes.

Until the end, Saudi officials continued to insist that Fahd was king, to the extent of producing him for an audience with visiting U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice just a few weeks before his death, an occasion that was said to be an embarrassment to both sides because of his poor condition. His death was announced on August 1, 2005.

Abdullah vs. the Remaining Sudairis

In the end, Abdullah’s succession was smooth enough. He promptly named Sultan as his crown prince. But, departing from the precedents of the previous several decades, Abdullah made no effort to appoint a second deputy prime minister, a crown prince in waiting. This omission was widely seen as representing Abdullah’s determination to exclude Nayef, the long-serving interior minister, a logical choice in terms of age and experience. Nayef, a full brother of Sultan, was said to want the post and considered it his right. But, in what can be interpreted as an effort to block the Sudairi princes, Abdullah refused to give it to him. Nayef was apparently shocked by Abdullah’s decision but could do nothing about it because at the time, Sultan respected Abdullah’s preference on the matter.

A further move against the Sudairi princes was Abdullah’s announcement in October 2006 of the formation of an Allegiance Council. Although the council is intended to come into operation only after Sultan has become king, it could be used earlier if either Abdullah or Sultan, or both, become incapacitated. The council would confirm a new king and agree on a new crown prince this latter role was previously the king’s prerogative. In theory, Sultan, as king, could abolish this council. In March 2009, further doubts about the council’s role arose when Prince Nayef was appointed second deputy prime minister and, presumably, crown prince in waiting.

Simon Henderson is Baker fellow and director of the Washington InstituteGulf and Energy Program, from this article is adapted.


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