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Nov 25, 2010 | 17:01 GMT

14 mins read

Saudi Arabia's Succession Labyrinth

HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Saudi King Abdullah is in the United States after having successfully undergone treatment for complications from a blood clot. With the prospect of succession looming — Crown Prince Sultan has been ill with cancer for many years, and both leaders are in their 80s — a shift in the kingdom's leadership is likely to take place at a time of tectonic change, both domestically and in the region. While the Saudi monarchy as an institution has been remarkably resilient since the unification of the kingdom in 1927, the challenge posed by the retirement or death of the current top Saudi hierarchy made up mainly of the founder's sons and the ascension of the next generation — which is far larger and less close-knit — will be daunting.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz has undergone a successful surgery in the United States to address a blood clot complicating a slipped spinal disc, according to a statement from the royal court on Nov. 24. The deteriorating health of the aging monarch comes as 82-year-old Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, the king's half brother, is suffering from cancer and has been spending much of his time resting in his palace in Morocco. The crown prince, who is also the country's deputy prime minister, minister of defense and aviation, and inspector general, returned to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 20 to see to the affairs of the state in the king's absence. The actual health status of both men remains opaque but, given their ages and medical histories, it is safe to assume that the kingdom will soon see a transition of power. Since 2005, when Abdullah ascended to the throne after the death of his predecessor, King Fahd, the Saudi kingdom has been engaged in a slow transition of power from one generation to the next. Besides King Abdullah, there are some 19 surviving sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, of whom only four can be considered likely successors to the throne given their current positions and influence. This means the grandsons of the founder, a much larger group, will very soon dominate the hierarchy of the Saudi state. So long as power was in the hands of the second generation, succession was not such a difficult issue and was dealt with informally. However, due to the massive changes occurring both within Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East, this transition will come at a particularly difficult time for the next-generation leadership that, despite the formal processes for succession instituted by Abdullah, will likely be far less unified than the current one. That said, the al-Saud regime has proved to be remarkably resilient over the course of its history, remaining in power despite the forced abdication of the founder's successor, King Saud, in 1964; the assassination of King Faisal in 1975; and the stroke-induced incapacitation of King Fadh for nearly a decade until his death in 2005, when King Abdullah took the throne. (click here to enlarge image) The stability of the second generation's leadership can be attributed, at least in part, to three key clans of the royal family acting as checks on one another. These include the Faisal clan, named for the successor to King Saud, who succeeded Saudi Arabia's modern founder, King Abdul-Aziz bin Abdel-Rehman al-Saud; the Abdullah faction, named for the current king; and the Sudairi clan, named for the founder's eighth wife, Princess Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. While Byzantine in its complexity, this balance has prevented incessant power grabs by King Abdul-Aziz's hundreds of descendants.

The Three Main Clans

The clan of former King Faisal includes Prince Saud, the current foreign minister, and Faisal's other two sons, Prince Khalid, governor of Mecca, and Prince Turki, who served as the kingdom's intelligence chief from 1977 to 2001. The Faisal clan has somewhat weakened in recent years. Prince Turki, after briefly serving as ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006, currently holds no official position, though he remains influential. His older full brother, Prince Saud, who has been foreign minister since 1975, is 70 years old and ailing, and could step down soon. Despite his influence over the years as head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) from 1962 to 2010, crown prince from 1982 to 2005, and de factor ruler since 1995, King Abdullah's faction is numerically small; he has no full brothers who hold key posts, and thus his clan is made up of his sons. King Abdullah's most prominent son, Mitab bin Abdullah, recently took over the SANG, and the king's oldest son, Khalid bin Abdullah, is a member of the newly formed Allegiance Council, set up to govern the succession process. Mishal bin Abdullah assumed the post of governor of the southern province of Najran, while another son, Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah, has been an adviser in his father's royal court since 1989. The Sudairis have held a disproportionate amount of power, due in part to the fact that their leader, the late King Fahd, was the longest-reigning monarch of the kingdom, ruling from 1982 to 2005. The Sudairi faction includes many powerful princes, such as the clan's current patriarch, Crown Prince Sultan, who serves as minister of defense and aviation and as inspector general; the vice minister of defense and aviation, Prince Abdul Rahman; Interior Minister Prince Naif; the governor of Riyadh province, Prince Salman; and Deputy Minister of Interior Prince Ahmed. Even though the crown prince's clan is bigger and more prominent than the king's, the two clans remain the principal stakeholders in the Saudi ruling family because they control the two parallel military forces of the kingdom. This has been the case since the early 1960s when then-Crown Prince Faisal — as part of his efforts to take power from his half brother, King Saud — appointed Crown Prince Sultan as minister of defense and aviation and King Abdullah as head of the SANG. Since then, the two men have controlled the two separate forces. King Abdullah's move to appoint his son, Mitab, to head the SANG shows that control over the force will remain with his clan. Likewise, Crown Prince Sultan would like to see control over the regular armed forces go to his eldest son, Khalid bin Sultan (currently assistant minister of defense), after Prince Sultan either decides to step down as minister of defense and aviation or dies. But this remains to be seen since the king reportedly opposes Khalid's taking over the Defense Ministry. Further complicating the situation is that, thus far, clans have been composed of the various sons of the founder from different mothers. Now, many of these second-generation princes have multiple wives, who have produced many sons all seeking their share of power, adding to the factionalism.

Setting Up a Succession Plan

Sensing that the power-sharing method within the family had become untenable due to the sheer number of descendants seeking power and influence within the regime, King Abdullah in 2007 moved to enact the Allegiance Institution Law, which created a leadership council and a formal mechanism to guide future transitions of power. This new, 35-member body, called the Allegiance Council, is made up of the 16 surviving sons of the founder and 19 of his grandsons — a disparity that will grow as the sons begin to die. Its purpose is to choose the new king and crown prince when they die or are permanently incapacitated, but the new institution remains an untested body. Perhaps most problematic, the processes the council is set to govern are being implemented at a time when the second generation is on its way out. Had this formal process of succession been initiated earlier, it would have been institutionalized during the era of the sons of the founder. They were far fewer in number and worked directly with their father to build the kingdom, giving them a stronger claim to authority than anyone in the subsequent generation. An earlier start would have allowed the second generation to deal with the many problems that inevitably crop up with any new system. The composition of the Allegiance Council is such that it gives representation to all the sons of the founder. This is done through either their direct membership on the council or via the grandsons whose fathers are deceased, incapacitated, or otherwise unwilling to assume the throne. The reigning king and his crown prince are not members but each has a son on the council. The council is chaired by the eldest son of the founder, with his second-oldest brother as his deputy. Should there be no one left from the second generation, the leadership of the council falls to the eldest grandson. Any time there is a vacancy, the king is responsible for appointing a replacement, though it is not known if King Abdullah has filled the vacancy created by the death of Prince Fawaz bin Abdul-Aziz, who died in July 2008, some six months after the establishment of the council. When King Abdullah dies, the council will pledge allegiance to Crown Prince Sultan, who automatically ascends to the throne. But the issue of the next crown prince is mired in a potential contradiction. According to the new law, after consultation with the Allegiance Council, the king can submit up to three candidates to the council for approval. The council can reject all of them and name a fourth candidate. But if the king rejects the council's nominee then the council will vote between its own candidate and the one preferred by the king, and the candidate who gets the most votes becomes the crown prince. There is also the option that the king may ask the council to nominate a candidate. In any case, a new crown prince must be appointed within a month of the new king's accession. This new procedure, however, conflicts with the established practice in which the second deputy prime minister takes over as crown prince, a policy that has been followed since King Faisal appointed Fahd to the post. In fact, the current king, after not naming a second deputy prime minister for four years, appointed Interior Minister Prince Naif to the post in March 2009. The appointment of Naif, who is viewed within Saudi Arabia as the next crown prince and eventually the king, as second deputy prime minister after the establishment of the Allegiance Council has already raised the question of whether established tradition will be replaced by the new formal procedure. The law also addresses the potential scenario in which both the king and crown prince fall ill such that they cannot fulfill their duties, which could transpire in the current situation given the health issues of both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan. In such a situation, the Allegiance Council would set up a five-member Transitory Ruling Council that would take over the affairs of the state until at least one of the leaders regained his health. If, however, it is determined by a special medical board that both leaders are permanently incapacitated, the Allegiance Council must appoint a new king within seven days. In the event that both the king and crown prince die simultaneously, the Allegiance Council would appoint a new king. The Transitory Ruling Council would govern until the new king was appointed. While it has been made clear that the Transitory Ruling Council will not be allowed to amend a number of state laws, its precise powers and composition have not been defined.

What Lies Ahead

The kingdom has little precedent in terms of constitutionalism. It was only in 1992 that the first constitution was developed, and even then the country has been largely governed via consensus obtained through informal means involving tribal and familial ties. Therefore, when this new formal mechanism for succession is put into practice, the House of Saud is bound to run into problems not only in implementation, but also competing interpretations. To make matters worse, the Saudis are in the midst of this succession dilemma — and will be for many years to come given the advanced ages of many senior princes — at a time of massive change within the kingdom and a shifting regional landscape. On the external front there are a number of challenges, the most significant of which is the regional rise of Iran, catalyzed by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The Saudis also do not wish to see a U.S.-Iranian conflict in the Persian Gulf, which would have destabilizing effects on the kingdom. To Saudi Arabia's immediate south, Yemen is grappling with three different insurrections challenging the regime of aging Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the Levant, the Saudis have to deal with both Iran and Syria, which each enjoy far more influence in Lebanon than Riyadh. Egypt is also in the middle of a major transition as ailing 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who has been at the helm for nearly 30 years, will soon hand over power to a successor — a development that has implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, another key area of interest for the Saudis. Even in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Saudis are caught between two unappealing options: side with the Taliban, as they did during the Taliban's rule in the 1990s, and risk empowering al Qaeda-led jihadists, or oppose the Taliban and thus help Iran expand its influence in the area. Turkey's bid for leadership in the Middle East is a new variable the kingdom has not had to deal with since the close of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire. In the near term, the Saudis take comfort in the idea that Turkey can serve as a counter to Iran, but the long-term challenge posed by Turkey's rise is a worrying development, especially since the Saudi leaders' predecessors lost control of the Arabian Peninsula twice to the Ottomans — once in 1818 and then again in 1891. While the Saudis have time to deal with a number of these external challenges, they do not enjoy that same luxury in their domestic affairs. The Saudis have been largely successful in containing the threat from al Qaeda, but they have had to engage in radical reforms, spearheaded by King Abdullah, in order to do so. These include scaling back the powers of the religious establishment, expanding the public space for women, changing the educational sector and undertaking other social reforms. These moves have led to a growing moderate-conservative divide at both the level of state and society and have galvanized those calling for further socio-political reforms as well as the significant Shia minority that seeks to exploit the opening provided by the reform process. Each of these domestic changes and their implications are deemed extremely uncomfortable by the religious establishment. While thus far the Saudis have been able to control the prominent Muslim scholars, known as the ulema class, especially with the limits on who can issue fatwas, the potential for backlash from the ulema remains. At the very least, the ulema will support more conservative factions in any power struggle. All of these issues further complicate the Saudis' venture into uncharted territory insofar as leadership changes are concerned. There are several princes who have already distinguished themselves as likely key players in a future Saudi regime. These include intelligence chief Prince Muqrin, the youngest living son of the founder and a member of the Allegiance Council; Prince Khalid bin Faisal, the governor of Mecca province; Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, the new commander of SANG; and Assistant Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif, the kingdom's counterterrorism chief and head of the de-radicalization program designed to reintegrate repentant jihadists. Since May 2008, when news first broke that Crown Prince Sultan was terminally ill, the expectation has been that the kingdom would have a new crown prince before it got a new king. King Abdullah's recent hospital visit may or may not alter those expectations. But in the end, the real issue is whether the historically resilient Saudi monarchy will be able to continue to demonstrate resilience moving forward.

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