Inside Saudi Succession
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|Simon Henderson||October 19th 2009|
Since the Saudi announcement of the formation of an Allegiance Council in October 2006, most observers have assumed that it would have a major role in the appointment of a new crown prince and even a new king, but such a conclusion is increasingly far from certain.
The declared role of the council is to help appoint a crown prince after Abdullah dies and Sultan becomes king. As such, it was probably an idea that surprised Sultan, who most likely had assumed that he could choose his own crown prince. Under the new system, his choice would need to be approved by the wider family. And if Sultan's choice were voted down, he would have to accept a compromise pick selected by the other members of the council.
The creation of an Allegiance Council showed the limits of Abdullah's power. Since it would not come into operation until Sultan became king, theoretically, as king, he could simply change the rules of the council or abolish it completely. A further indication of the constraints on Abdullah's authority, or perhaps just another case of slow Saudi administration, was the December 2007 announcement of the council's members more than a year after its creation.
The setting up of the council seems to indicate Abdullah's belief that the arrangement from the time of Fahd's first stoke in 1995 until his death in 2005 was most unsatisfactory. The core aspects of the new council's articles deal with the possibility of either the king or crown prince—or both—being ill, or both dying. In the event that neither the king nor the crown prince is deemed fit to rule, a five-member transitory council would run state affairs for a week at most, choosing a new king and crown prince. But the articles did not truly grasp the challenge of an increasingly aged and decrepit leadership passing power to the next generation.
The council comprises the other surviving sons of Ibn Saud and senior sons of princes who have died or are infirm. The list shows the essential counter-Sudairi aspect of Abdullah's thinking. In the thirty-five-member council, the six surviving Sudairi (the most influential clan of the Al Faisal branch of the Al Saud family) princes—and Sultan's eldest son, Khalid, also a member—would be easily outvoted by the others. Prince Mishal, appointed as the council's chairman, is not considered a contender for the throne by virtue of having an Armenian mother, no recent government experience, and a reputation for pursuing his business interests.
The articles of the Allegiance Council were a radical development from the previously accepted notion of succession, first codified in the Basic Law of Governance issued by King Fahd in March 1992. The edict (presented in the form of a royal decree that had the force of law from its date of publication) stated that the throne passes to the sons of Ibn Saud, and to their sons. It continues: "The most upright among them is to receive allegiance in accordance with the principles of the Koran and the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. The King chooses his heir apparent and can relieve him of his duties by royal order. The heir apparent takes over the powers of the king on the latter's death, until the oath of allegiance has been carried out."
Since 1992, the other state institutions have been developed, principally the Majlis e-Shura or consultative council. This group has no direct role in addressing issues such as succession; it can only advise on policy. But the council does represent a forum for the nonroyal middle class, and its members offer a wealth of experience, with many of them holding postgraduate degrees. From an original 60 appointed members and a chairman in 1993, it has been expanded after each four-year term, first to 90, then to 120, and now to 160 members. However, little evidence suggests that the council members are anything but the most loyal of Saudi society, and nothing indicates that they would take a view, either individually or collectively, at odds with what is officially sanctioned.
There is also little evidence to date that the Shura council will evolve to have a say on an issue as delicate as succession. The kingdom's other attempt to broaden political participation—elections to municipal councils in 2005—has had little impact. In May 2009, the council of ministers postponed the coming municipal elections, originally scheduled for October 2009, by extending the terms of existing councils by two years. Although the media speculated that changes to the law giving women the vote were being considered, and extra time was needed to study this proposal, the decision was also seen as reflecting the power and influence of the new second deputy prime minister, Prince Nayef, who is believed to oppose such a change.
The announcement of an al-Saud Family Council in 2000 was initially seen as a mechanism to ease the ailing King Fahd from the throne. Like the Allegiance Council, it was noteworthy for its broad membership—broader even than that of the Allegiance Council in that, along with then Crown Prince Abdullah as chairman and Prince Sultan as deputy chairman, the other sixteen princes on the council represented almost all the al-Saud's historical branches. Since then, the Family Council has had a low profile and is assumed to provide a forum for issues such as marriages of royal princesses to Saudi commoners and arguments over business interests.
In early 2009, it appeared that the Allegiance Council would face its first test. Crown Prince Sultan, whose reported ill health had been the subject of much speculation, appeared to be dying. He had undergone surgery in late 2008 in New York City, followed by recuperation in Morocco and a return to the United States for more treatment. If Sultan had died before King Abdullah, the king would have been able to guide the Allegiance Council into choosing a non-Sudairi prince as the new heir apparent.
At the end of March 2009, a brief announcement declared that Prince Nayef had been appointed second deputy prime minister. Nayef, who had been sidelined after Fahd's death in 2005, was back in contention. The move prompted Prince Talal, obviously unhappy with the turn of events, to fax a statement to the Reuters news agency saying: "I call on the royal court to clarify what is meant by this nomination and that it does not mean that he [Prince Nayef] will become crown prince." There was no response. It was reasonably clear that, if Sultan were to die, Nayef's claim to become crown prince might be incontestable.
But predictions of Sultan's imminent demise were premature. In April 2009, he flew from the United States to Morocco to recuperate further. And on May 26, King Abdullah, in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Seyassah, announced that, "The Almighty has cured Sultan… We look forward to his return [to Saudi Arabia] in the next six weeks." In succession terms, the possibility of Sultan being deemed no longer healthy enough to be considered as king or to retain his position as crown prince had already been dented by the visit of Mishal bin Abdulaziz, the chairman of the Allegiance Council. In a trip to Morocco in Mid-May 2009, interpreted as being a check on Sultan's health, Mishal was reported as being "reassured about the health condition of Crown Prince Sultan."
Simon Henderson is Baker fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Program, from which this article is adapted.