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Saudi Arabia: A Contentious Succession Decision

3 MINS READMar 28, 2009 | 15:01 GMT
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz has been appointed deputy prime minister, the kingdom's official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported March 27. The SPA report did not provide any further details. Prince Naif's appointment as deputy prime minister indicates that he will likely assume the post of crown prince when the ailing Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz dies. This announcement comes just a week after Prince Naif visited Crown Prince Sultan, his elder full brother, in New York. From New York, Prince Naif claimed that the crown prince was in "excellent health." However, STRATFOR has received indications from multiple sources that the crown prince's health situation is quite grave, and such statements by Prince Naif are likely preparation for the coming succession. The question of who will succeed Crown Prince Sultan has been a major one, given the institution of the new — and untested — formal succession process through the Allegiance Council. Saudi King Abdullah, who was behind the creation of the new succession system, broke with decades-old tradition when he did not appoint a deputy prime minister upon his ascension to the throne in 2005 after the death of his predecessor, King Fahd. In Saudi politics, the deputy prime minister position has for decades been considered the logical stepping-stone to crown prince. Prince Naif's appointment as deputy prime minister at this time suggests that there is a rift going on within the royal family. It also shows that Crown Prince Sultan and Prince Naif want to keep the throne within their powerful Sudeiri clan, though the newly created Allegiance Council does have to sign off on the new crown prince. Prince Naif, who is known for being close to the religious establishment, has likely sought support from the ulema class, which is extremely uncomfortable about King Abdullah's reforms. In fact, just two days earlier, Prince Naif, age 75, publicly rejected the idea of an elected legislature for the kingdom and female representation in the kingdom's legislative body. Whether or not Prince Naif actually succeeds Sultan as crown prince remains to be seen. For now, he has become deputy premier in addition to being interior minister, a powerful security post he has held since 1975. Despite his reputation for being close to the hard-line religious class, Naif is credited with the successful counterterrorism strategy that has resulted in the containment of al Qaeda in the kingdom, and he is next in line in terms of age, which makes him a strong candidate for the post of crown prince. King Abdullah's reforms appear to be eliciting significant opposition from his younger half-brothers — a development that underscores a certain degree of instability within the kingdom. This instability comes as the kingdom has embarked into uncharted territory at home and faces a strong external challenge as its main backer, the United States, works to improve relations with Saudi Arabia's regional rival, Iran.

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