The Saudi Succession Question
|Simon Henderson||October 26th 2011|
Editor’s note: This series was originally written in 2009; we re-publish it now in light of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s recent death.
Who are the candidates for succession to Saudi throne once King Abdullah passes? Many of the grandsons of Ibn Saud are already grandfathers; some have years of government experience. But which line should be favored in this next generation is among the most contentious aspects of the Saudi succession.
In discussing the younger generation, it is worth noting that sons of past kings are usually not considered worthy of mention. The respect accorded them and the extent to which they have a leadership claim seem to diminish upon the death of their fathers. Crucially, without their fathers’ backing, most seem to fall out of contention. The largest single group of second-generation princes are the sons of Saud, numbered at more than fifty (and a similar number of daughters), only a few of whom have any public role.
The sons of King Faisal—Saud, Khalid, and Turki—are recognized as being able, certainly by foreign ambassadors, but they are said to be regarded unfavorably within the al-Saud because of their perceived airs of intellectual superiority. (A 1985 British Ministry of Defense briefing paper referred to Saud as “[v]ery bright but perhaps not so bright as he thinks.”) As long-serving foreign minister, Saud is well known abroad and generally respected. But he suffers from both a bad back and Parkinson’s disease, and so he would probably rule himself out on health grounds. He also displays little interest in the role, having never been noted for holding a majlis, the forum where he can listen to ordinary people’s complaints and also be judged as a good and generous host.
Khalid is the governor of the Mecca province, an artist, and a friend of Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne. His brother Turki is also well known internationally, having served as head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as ambassador in London and then in Washington. But he resigned as head of the GID in 2001 (just ten days before the September 11 Attacks), and later reportedly lost the trust of King Abdullah when assigned as ambassador to the United States. Turki is now chairman of the board of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, perhaps the closest institution in the kingdom to a Western policy thank tank.
The sons of King Khalid have low public profiles and almost certainly would not be considered.
The most significant son of the late King Fahd is Muhammad bin Fahd, the long-serving governor of the Eastern province, but he is seldom mentioned as a future king. Fahd’s youngest and supposedly favorite son, Abdulaziz, is a minister of state in King Abdullah’s administration and president of the Cabinet Presidency Court (Notionally responsible for running the council of ministers) but has seen his influence diminish steadily.
The other main group to consider consists of the sons of King Abdullah and those of the senior Sudairi princes—Sultan, Nayef, and Salman.
King Abdullah’s senior son is Mitab, who effectively runs the Saudi Arabian National Guard. In June 2009, this position was formalized with his appointment as deputy commander for executive affairs. Abdullah has placed Abdulaziz in his court as an advisor. Abdulaziz is also a member of the board of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. In 2009, Abdullah’s son Mishal was made governor of Najran province. His son Faisal is the president of the Saudi Red Crescent Society. And his youngest son, Badr, is just seven years old. In Saudi terms, he is evidence of the king’s continuing physical health. Badr was presented to President Barack Obama when the U.S. leader visited the kingdom in June 2009. President George W. Bush also met Badr during a trip to the kingdom a year earlier.
Crown Prince Sultan’s eldest son is Khalid, the Saudi commander in Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led effort to liberate Kuwait in 1991. Khalid is the assistant minister of defense and effectively ran the defense ministry even before his father traveled to the United States in 2008 for medical treatment. Sultan’s most well-known son is Bandar, the former long-serving ambassador to the United States. Since 2005, Bandar has been secretary general of the newly established Saudi National Security Council, but he has kept a surprisingly low profile. His greatest handicap to a claim on the throne is his mother’s status as either a slave or a concubine in his father’s household.
Salman’s sons are Sultan, the former astronaut on a 1985 Discovery flight, now in charge of the Supreme Tourism Commission; Faisal, who runs the Saudi Research and Marketing Group media empire, which includes the al-sharq al-Awsat newspaper; and Abdulaziz, who serves in the oil ministry. Two other sons, Fahd and Ahmad, died in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
Nayef’s sons are Saud, the ambassador to Spain, and Muhammad, the assistant minister of interior, who has gained a high reputation with foreign security professionals for his organization and leadership of Saudi counterterrorism forces.
Of Ibn Saud’s other grandsons, probably the best known abroad is al-Waleed, the son of Prince Talal. Being the son of a controversial father, and having a non-Saudi grandmother and a Lebanese mother, tend to rule him out from any consideration. Al-Waleed, though, likes to suggest he would consider the throne if it were offered to him.
Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute, from where this article is adapted.