Saudi Arabia: Signs of a New Political Era

5 MINS READMay 7, 2008 | 22:01 GMT
Saudi Arabia’s aging Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz is reportedly very ill. As the most influential senior member of the royal family, his demise could lead to major changes in leadership while revealing how well the kingdom’s new mechanism for overseeing leadership transitions functions.
The head of the Saudi Arabian Allegiance Commission, Prince Mishal bin Abdul-Aziz, departed May 7 for Geneva, where he checked on the health of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz. The 82-year-old Saudi crown prince arrived April 28 in the Swiss city for unspecified medical tests. Though two years younger than King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, Prince Sultan is believed to be in worse health than the Saudi king. The visit by the head of the Saudi body that oversees succession, established in December 2007, could be an indication that Prince Sultan is terminally ill. If so, Prince Sultan's death would create an opportunity to test the performance of the newly formed Allegiance Commission, as well as setting off a major leadership reshuffle in the kingdom. That body was designed to formalize succession among the al Saud family. Previously, the Saudi dynasty has relied on an ad hoc process of familial deliberations whenever a leadership transition arose. The Saudi royal family has proven resilient since it first came to power in 1744. The house of Saud lost power on two occasions, in 1818 and 1891, to the Ottomans. Since the founding of its third incarnation in the early days of the 20th century, the modern Saudi kingdom has dealt with numerous transfers of power. The first occurred with the 1953 death of the founder of the modern kingdom, King Abdul-Aziz bin Abdel-Rehman. The second occurred when his successor Saud bin Abdulaziz was deposed in 1964. The third came after the 1975 assassination of the third Saudi monarch, Feisal bin Abdul-Aziz, in 1975 at the hands of his nephew. This was followed by the deaths of the two subsequent kings, Khalid bin Abdul-Aziz in 1982 and Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz in 2005. Over this same period, the Saudis have faced a number of major domestic and foreign policy challenges. These include the rise of militant Wahhabis in the late 1920s and the takeover of the Kaaba by similar elements in 1979. More recently, a dissident movement especially within the country’s religious establishment arose in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War followed by the jihadist insurgency in the aftermath of 9/11. Prince Sultan’s potential exit from the scene would be the first time the kingdom would need to replace a crown prince while the king remains on his throne. Though he is the kingdom’s No. 2, the ailing Prince Sultan is the most influential member of the Saudi royal family. In addition to his title of crown prince, the prince holds a number of key government positions. He is deputy prime minister, minister of defense and aviation — hence controlling the nation's military — and the kingdom’s inspector general of aviation. Thus, in his wake a number of key positions will have to be filled, with princes moving up the ranks in a major reshuffle in the top echelons of the royal family. Making the situation more complex, he has two very important sons. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the younger son, is the more prominent of the two. At present, he is Saudi Arabia's national security chief/adviser and was the longest serving Saudi ambassador to the United States. Bandar’s older brother, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, is a key former general who commanded the country’s forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He is now deputy defense minister. Prince Sultan’s two full brothers Prince Nayef, 75, and Prince Salman, 72. They are interior minister and governor of Riyadh, respectively, and they are next line for the throne. STRATFOR has discussed how the advanced age of the kingdom’s top princes could lead to a rapid transition in which the al Saud family's third generation — the grandsons of Abdul-Aziz, the founder of the modern kingdom — increasingly assume key positions. The very large number of grandsons was a key reason why King Abdullah established an institution to formalize the process of succession and mitigate conflict and competition within the royal family. The 35-member body is made up of 16 sons and 19 grandsons of the kingdom’s founder. Additionally, King Abdullah has sought to bring technocrats who are not from the royal family into the leadership circle. The Saudi kingdom is entering a new phase just as it is in the middle of unprecedented and highly risky domestic reforms — and the greatest foreign policy challenge in the form of the rise of Iran and the Shia. But the Saudis enjoy a major advantage in the massive revenues from rising oil prices, which could go a long way in smoothing the transition. Sultan’s potential exit from the scene and the role of the new allegiance council will therefore determine whether the kingdom — which has long remained stable under an informal system of transfer of power — can successfully adapt to a formal system.

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