Saudi Arabia: The Crown Prince and the New Succession Process
4 MINS READJan 23, 2009 | 19:14 GMT
PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Defense Minister and Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz reportedly is suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer, meaning his death could be fast approaching. His passing will test a new Saudi succession system intended to prevent royal infighting.
It has been more than two weeks since STRATFOR received fresh information that Saudi Defense Minister and Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, who has been terminally ill for some time, could be near death. On Jan. 7, STRATFOR reported that Crown Prince Sultan arrived in Morocco after doctors in New York completed his radiation treatment. Senior members of the Saudi royal family reportedly made their way to Morocco soon after he arrived, highlighting the situation's gravity. STRATFOR sources close to the Saudi royal family reported Jan. 23 that the crown prince remains in Morocco, and is suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer. While in New York, he allegedly received treatment with the chemotherapy drug Gemcitabine, and had an operation to insert a shunt to treat a bile duct blockage. If correct, the Saudi crown prince could be approaching death. The pancreas excretes enzymes that facilitate digestion and hormones that aid in regulating sugar metabolism in the body. This type of cancer is very difficult to detect in its early stages, and can spread rapidly throughout the body's lymphatic system. Once the cancer reaches a stage where it requires a shunt to to help drain blockages and release pressure in the gland, it is usually a matter of time — typically weeks and months — before death. It is unclear how much time has been bought with the shunt procedure, but the source estimates that it could give the crown prince at least several months. STRATFOR will continue to monitor the situation closely, but it appears inevitable that the Saudi royal family will soon be undergoing a major succession. This upcoming succession is a particularly complicated as Crown Prince Sultan is the head of the Sudeiri clan (the most powerful clan within the al-Saud family), and serves two key roles in the government as deputy prime minister and defense minister. Rumors of who will replace the crown prince continue to circulate. The next-most-senior member of the family is Interior Minister Prince Nayef, but Crown Prince Sultan's younger brother, Riyadh Gov. Prince Salman, has also been identified as one of the favorites to replace the crown prince. Crown Prince Sultan also has two sons — Prince Bandar bin Sultan (the country's national security chief and former ambassador to the United States) and Prince Khalid (a prominent general who currently serves as deputy defense minister) — who are most likely jockeying to fill the post of defense minister and other key positions. Beyond the personalities, this particular succession will be an unprecedented event for the Saudis since the kingdom will not already have a second deputy prime minister who has been designated to replace the crown prince. The current monarch, King Abdullah, intentionally avoided appointing someone to the post when he came to power in 2005 because he had an agenda to formalize a process that would prevent severe royal family infighting during times of succession. Infighting arises because the Saudi monarchy does not pick successors based purely on seniority or through primogeniture. Previously, successors to the king and crown prince were designated by a small group of Saudi royals on an ad hoc basis outside of any formalized structure, thereby raising the potential for severe instability should senior members of the government disagree with the selection of a new king or crown prince. This time around, the decision of who replaces the crown prince will fall to a succession council (members of whom are appointed by the king) that will vote for a successor. The council's first choice will be a major litmus test for the kingdom's political stability, but the Saudi royals are already preparing for this test.