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Inside Saudi Succession

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Possible Scenarios for the Succession of the Saudi Throne

November 2nd 2009

Arab Topics - King Abdullah2
King Abdullah

It is not clear who will succeed King Abdullah upon his death. The picture is complicated by the advanced age and poor health of Saudi Arabia's senior princes and the unpredictable order in which they will die, the lack of knowledge regarding how the remaining sons of Ibn Saud will form a consensus, and the unknown extent to which the newly formed Allegiance Council will have a role. All twenty surviving sons of Ibn Saud are older than sixty-five--past what would be considered normal retirement age in most parts of the world. Of these sons, eight are in their seventies and six are in their eighties.

With an established precedent in the kingdom for age-based seniority, multiple transitions could occur within a short period of time, a state of affairs reminiscent of the last years of the Soviet Union. Whether the system can tolerate the deaths of successive kings at such close intervals is questionable, given the politics involved in deciding on a new crown prince and heir apparent at the same time.

This complicated future can be most simply described by variety of scenarios, some of which overlap.

Scenario 1: Crown Prince Sultan dies before King Abdullah.

Despite official reports that he is in good health, Crown Prince Sultan is widely believed to be mortally ill and unlikely to live beyond the end of the year. If Sultan died before Abdullah, the king would find himself under enormous pressure from his senior brothers to appoint Interior Minister Prince Nayef as crown prince. Theoretically, such a move should be endorsed by the Allegiance Council, but it is far from clear that this would happen. With King Abdullah turning eighty-six this year and Nayef reportedly suffering from leukemia at seventy-six, this new leadership partnership would not last long. If Abdullah were to die next, Nayef would become king.

Scenario 2: King Abdullah predeceases Crown Prince Sultan.

If Abdullah dies while Sultan is alive, unless a group of medical experts appointed by the Allegiance Council says the latter is not sufficiently healthy to become king, Sultan will almost certainly claim the throne. At that point, the only obstacle to him becoming king would be the refusal by other princes to sweat the baya (oath of Allegiance) to him. He would likely appoint Prince Nayef, his full brother, as crown prince, who would become king when Sultan dies.

Scenario 3: Both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan experience failing health.

If Abdullah and Sultan both confront serious health problems, theoretically the Allegiance Council would appoint a five-member transitory ruling council, which would temporarily govern the country. Meanwhile, the council would choose a suitable candidate to be king. The makeup of the Allegiance Council, which does not include Nayef, suggests strongly that he would not be chosen as the next king. Nayef, however, would likely challenge a ruling to block his ascent. How much of this maneuvering would be visible is unclear--the procedures of the council are secret--but, as interior minister, Nayef commands substantial police and paramilitary forces. Deploying such forces would amount to launching a coup d'etat, but this should not be ruled out as a possibility. (Nayef would probably choose his Sudairi brother Salman, the governor of Riyadh province, as crown prince, although his non-Sudairi half brothers would oppose such a move. Salman has the reputation of being a family conciliator, so he might be able to achieve support.)

Scenario 4: Consensus emerges to choose a younger son of Ibn Saud.

To avoid having to determine the line of succession every two or three years, several of the older brothers would have to be persuaded to forgo their claims to the throne in order to give a younger man a chance. Assuming good health and barring accident, this might result in ten or more years of continuous rule. Fahd provided what is regarded as strong rule for ten years after becoming king in 1982, though afterward he became indecisive and then had a stroke. A better example may be found in the eleven years of Faisal's rule, seen as a time of successful transition from a poor tribal society to a technologically modern state.

In the past, Salman, seventy-three this year, has been seen as the obvious candidate among Ibn Saud's younger sons, even though, having had two sons die from heart problems, his own health is probably not robust enough for a lengthy period of rule. In his favor, however, are his experience as the governor of Riyadh province and his reputation, rare in the Saudi royal family, of being able, hardworking, and free of corruption (although he was once a shareholder in the criminal Bank of Credit and Commerce International). As a fellow Sudairi prince, he is possibly the only rival to whom Nayef would yield, in the face of royal family opposition, his own claim to the throne.

A long-shot candidate in this scenario is the youngest surviving son of Ibn Saud, Miqrin, a former air force pilot, provincial governor, and now head of the General Intelligence Directorate, the Saudi foreign intelligence service. But his mother was not Saudi, a fact that probably disqualifies him.

Scenario 5: The sons of Ibn Saud decide that succession should go to the next generation.

Who are the candidates? This question is enormous.

Simon Henderson is Baker fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Program, from which this article is adapted.


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