A Sense of Coming Change in the Hidebound Monarchy

When the octogenarian Saudi King Abdullah, head of the world's largest producer and exporter of petroleum liquids, suffers ill health, many world centers feel the chill and start worrying about the impact of a succession race on the monarchy's stability.
On November 13, the Saudi press carried an official Royal Court bulletin stating that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz had back problems and was under doctors' orders to rest up as part of the treatment for a slipped disc. The bulletin stressed its publication was in line with the policy of transparency the king had introduced. Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, 75, was named as official in charge of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which began this week with more than three million pilgrims and new, modern amenities. Nothing was said about him standing in for the king in other areas, although it was widely reported in Riyadh this past year that Nayef was frontrunner in the race for the role of crown prince.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly notes that even in modern Western societies, a government head rarely informs the public of a back complaint – all the more so in Saudi Arabia's secretive political culture. This information may be gossiped about in court circles or go round the bazaars. Normally, even if it were reported in the West, a comment from the royal court would be unthinkable.
For nine years, King Fahd lay at death's door, incapacitated by a severe stroke and unable to perform his royal functions. Yet the Saudi media faithfully reported on his "activities" as though nothing was amiss and never hinted at his real condition even after it was an open secret.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's experts on Saudi Arabia believe the surprise medical bulletin means one of two things are happening: Either the 87-year old king decided to put to rest rumors of a far graver illness by officially disclosing a non-life-threatening ailment, or he is sending a broad hint to senior princes of his own generation that it was time to come clean about their deteriorating health and start moving sideways.


Thousands of princes scramble as ageing rulers fall ill


Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, 86, for instance, has been fighting cancer for years and spends more time outside the kingdom undergoing surgery and other treatment than performing his duties as defense minister at home.
Last month, Sultan's son, Prince Khaled bin Sultan tried to refute the impression of his father's declining condition by telling everyone he was in good health. The Saudi media painted a rosy picture of the dying prince by describing his schedule as packed with appointments with Arab leaders.
As for Abdullah, even if all he suffers from is a slipped disc, he has admitted he needs a long period of rest from his labors at the helm of the kingdom's governing administration. The poor state of his health was confirmed Wednesday, Nov. 17, by the elevation of his son Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah to membership of the Council of Ministers and promotion to Commander of the Saudi National Guard, part of Abdullah's holdings from when he was Crown Prince.
Even if they were hale and hearty, the advanced ages of both the king and defense minister, who is also the next in line to the succession, are enough to stir disquiet within the royal family and spotlight the race for the next slots in the hierarchy.
Number 2 is more or less accounted for. More than a year ago, Prince Nayef was appointed Second Deputy to the Prime Minister, Saudi code for next Crown Prince and one step from the throne after Abdullah and Sultan breathe their last.
But thousands of princes are agog in anticipation of the fast-approaching battles over who comes next in the line of succession to the throne.
This question came into sharp focus with the unforeseen return home on Oct. 15 after a long absence of Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Director of the National Security Council and Ambassador to the US for twenty-two years.


Prince Bandar stakes claim to top post


The grand reception staged for his return was seen as a show of strength by the Sudairi branch of the royal house to which Bandar belongs. It was attended exclusively by the sons of the senior princes of that branch, Nayef, Sultan and the late king Fahd, excepting only one outsider, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, Director of General Intelligence, who is a very close confidante of King Abdullah.
However, none of the king's sons or those of the Sudairi's rivals, the branch headed by Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal and his brother Prince Turki al Faisal, were present.
So what brought Bandar home after an absence of two years?
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, seeing the ruling hierarchy showing cracks and the atmosphere in Riyadh growing electric with rivalry, he decided to step into the forefront of the race for one of the top positions in the realm.
Bandar feels his proven foreign policy talents and special gift for secret diplomacy are unappreciated and unutilized. The powers of the National Security Council which he heads have never been clearly marked out and the body has been marginalized in recent years. The post of foreign minister or director of general intelligence would, on the other hand, suit him to the ground and give him a seat on the councils shaping the kingdom's strategic and external policies.
This aspiration was hinted at in a report by the Saudi newsletter Al-Ilaf published in London which reported Bandar's return last Sunday as signifying the return of the hawks to the center of action in Riyadh.
Our Saudi experts hesitate to characterize Bandar as a hawk in the kingdom's foreign affairs. By their statements and actions, the two Faisal sons, Foreign Minister Saud, 69, and his younger brother, 65, are far more hawkish when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, refusing to have any truck with Israel until the Palestinian issue is resolved. But the Al-Ilaf story does serve as a bellwether for Bandar's ambition.


The fiefdom tradition keeps top posts in the family


The door to General Intelligence is closed for now. The king is all the way behind its director, Prince Muqrin and shows no inclination to replace him.
The foreign ministry is another matter. Prince Saud, who has served in that position since the death of his father King Faisal in 1975, suffers from Parkinson's disease. For years, he was said to be ready to retire. In some quarters, his brother Turki's resignation three years ago as Ambassador to the US after less than two years was accounted for by his hopes of replacing his brother.
But nothing came of it and the post of foreign minister has become the object of princely infighting.
This does not mean that Bandar can hope to snare the job. His chances are rated slim by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Saudi sources because of the ruling Saudi hierarchy's rigid structure. For two decades, it has been governed by the principle of fiefdom, or internal dynasties. Ageing princes who have served as cabinet ministers for 30 years or more are now grooming their sons to succeed them.
The Saudi National Guard is part of King Abdullah's holdings from when he was crown prince. Wednesday, Nov. 17, he handed its command to his son, Prince Mutaib. In doing so, he confimed his own indisposition and also sent a clear message to Defense Minister Sultan to stop messing about and follow suit by making his son Prince Khaled bin Sultan commander of Saudi Arabia's armed forces – or even minister of defense.
Interior Minister Nayef likewise reserves his portfolio for his son and acting deputy, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who, too, will take over when the time comes.


Faces may change – or even shake up the gerontocracy ruling Riyadh


The Faisal clan does not strictly follow this feudal tradition.
The foreign minister's post is customarily the preserve of King Faisal's offspring, so it is very likely that if Saud steps down or is raised to Crown Prince notwithstanding his illness, he will make sure to keep it in the family.
His full brother Turki is the strongest contender for the job, although he may be challenged by their half-brother from another mother, Prince Khalid al-Faisal.
He is about three years older than Turki. The Saudi kingdom may be young (founded by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud in 1932) but it has quickly grown into a political gerontocracy where seniority is an asset. So Khalid's age is no bar to high office. His other qualifications for the top diplomatic post in the kingdom are his service as Governor of Asir Province for than 20 years and as Governor of Mecca since 2007, a post with plenty of political and media exposure.
It is not known if he wants to be foreign minister. In the past month, Khalid has been described, mainly in the United States, as likely to emerge as a future king. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Saudi experts rule this prospect out as unfounded because it would entail an almost revolutionary break with the kingdom's deeply entrenched rules of succession, a break radical enough to bring the entire monarchical edifice to collapse.
For now, therefore, the power struggle over the order of succession between the Sudairi clan, headed by Princes Sultan and Nayef and their sons, and the rival branches headed by Abdullah and the Faisal sons, is unresolved.
It may therefore be presumed that the prescription formulated by King Faisal in the 1970s, which has kept the many-branched royal family in balance until now, will continue to prevail. If it does, the Sudairi Nayef will eventually be crowned king and his Crown Prince will come from one of the rival clans headed by King Abdullah and the Faisal brothers. Age and birth will continue to take precedence. But the change coming to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may not be as controlled as expected.

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