Call it the desert enigma: an oil-rich kingdom ruled by a royal family of many faces and intrigues and linked through 19 hard men to the worst terrorist attack ever to shake a superpower to its foundations.
A close look at Saudi Arabia raises more questions than answers.
Just what is the relationship between the House of Saud and the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush? Are large segments of the Saudi establishment linked to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and to al Qaeda or other Islamic terrorist groups in the kingdom or overseas? Does Saudi Arabia oppose or support the coming US war against Iraq and will it be prepared for even limited cooperation with Washington to oust Saddam Hussein?
Will Saudi oil fields be hit in the military campaign against Iraq and will Saudi crude lose its importance after the United States or a pro-American government takes over in Baghdad and controls Iraqi oil taps?
Add to the brew such side dishes as Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran over top spot as regional power of the Persian Gulf, Saudi-Pakistani military and political relations and Riyadh’s involvement in Syria and Lebanon.
The inherent secretiveness that keeps the information available down to a trickle makes it almost impossible for experts to piece together a total picture.
Just who are the people running the country? What are their policies and personal viewpoints? And who advises them?
And the biggest mystery: What is really going on in Saudi Arabia beyond and beneath the top layer of princes? Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy (bound only by religion) with no elections, no free speech, no legislature and no opposition. The only dissenting voices rise inside the thick walls of the palaces where court intrigue seethes well out of sight.
What influence is wielded by the army, the National Guard and the General Intelligence Service – the Saudi equivalent to the CIA that also has responsibility for preventing subversion and sabotage at Saudi oil fields?
Out there, in desert oases and tribal grounds, there are 22.5 million Saudis. Tribal units may have lost some of their economic power, but has this cut down their political clout in the capital? Will the House of Saud and the world be caught unawares again as they were 23 years ago when fanatical Othaiba tribesmen led a revolt that took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and were on the verge of toppling the Saudi royal house?
A comprehensive look at Saudi Arabia would be incomplete without an examination of the stirrings in the ulema, the powerful Saudi religious hierarchy which makes its influence felt in the farthest corners of the Moslem world, including places like Chechnya.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have worked for months gathering exclusive information on the kingdom. Their findings appear in this issue and will continue to be presented in future editions of DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
Crown Prince Abdullah Vs Defense Chief Sultan
The three overriding concerns exercising the Saudi royal family this past year were the state of relations with the Bush administration – the president and vice president, in particular; the handling of its unacknowledged ties with al-Qaeda and other radical Moslem groups – the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip and extremists in Pakistan, Bosnia and Chechnya; and the coming US war against Iraq.
The last is the most acute. Already grappling with economic strains at home, Saudi rulers are bracing for a vertiginous fall in oil prices which they expect after America wins its war over Baghdad, installs a new government and resumes full oil production in Iraq. In Riyadh, the campaign is expected to take no more than two or three weeks. This prospect worries the Saudi royals – even though they want to see Saddam Hussein disappear as much as the Americans do.
For a country totally dependent on oil for its revenues, a price collapse would spell disaster. In six months at most, the cash would run out for maintaining the bureaucracy and economy at their present rate of operation.
Overlaying all these concerns, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say, is the looming crisis presented by the unresolved order of succession to the throne. When ailing King Fahd dies, his accepted heir is Crown Prince Abdullah. But who is next in line as crown prince?
The candidate accepted by princely consensus till now was the defense minister, Abdullah’s half-brother Sultan, as the best man for the job. But advancing years make it his ascent to the throne biologically improbable. Sultan is either the same age as Abdullah, who is 77 or 78 (see Abdullah’s profile below), or a year older and not in good health. The House of Saud must therefore look for its next second-in-line to the crown in the next generation. But before stepping aside, Sultan demands a say in his replacement, creating a fresh gridlock.
Who is competent to select the next crown prince and future king? Abdullah or Sultan?
The battle between their two camps has cast the royal family into crisis with the chances of a compromise receding all the time.
Both are marshalling support from the ranks of the more influential princes out of an estimated 10,000.
Two Princes at Daggers Drawn
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and the al-Faisal clan head Abdullah’s camp which is disadvantaged by the crown prince having a small family.
Abdullah’s second son, Mitab bin Abdullah, 40, is his father’s point man in the power struggle. He keeps his finger on the right pulses in Abdullah’s main power supports: The officers of the 50,000-man National Guard, of which the Crown Prince is commander in chief; the provincial governors and the tribal chiefs.
His foremost allies are Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdul Aziz, 40 plus, Governor of the Holy City of Mecca, and Prince al-Walid bin Talal, who is rated one of the richest men in the world.
Al-Walid won notoriety by writing a check of $10 m for the victims of the 9/11 attacks on New York City, only to have it rejected by city officials when he demanded a re-assessment of American Middle East policies. Another Saudi mogul, Prince Mashal bin Abdul Aziz, is also a partisan of Abdullah’s strong and well-financed camp.
Sultan’s camp is if anything larger and more powerful. (See Sultan’s profile below)
It is built around two of his distinguished sons, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the deputy defense minister and one of the strongest men in the kingdom, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the popular Saudi ambassador to the United States, a prominent Washington figure for more than a quarter century.
Support for Sultan has divided the Faisal clan. Two leading princes, Turki bin Faisal, for many years head of the General Intelligence Service, GIS, that provides security for the Saudi princes and oil fields against terror attack; and Khaled bin Faisal, Governor of Assir, the sensitive southern province that abuts on Yemen.
Sultan’s support group also includes Prince Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz, incumbent GIS chief, and two more of the defense minister’s seven full brothers – Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, who holds responsibility for internal security, and Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, Governor of the Riyadh Region. Sultan can also count on the national security services and the 70,000-80,000-strong armed forces, military intelligence and air force, most of whose commanders and officers are members of the Sultan family or kinsmen of his Sudayri clan.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Sultan’s following had a clear edge over the Abdullah camp up to the period just before the September 11 hijacking attacks in New York and Washington. Up until then, both camps fought within certain respected boundaries. But on August 30, 2001, Abdullah changed the rules, surprising not only his rival but his own followers. He fired Prince Turki bin Faisal as head of the GIS. This step raised the dust around the ruling political and security circles of the Arab world.
From that moment on, the contest shifted gear from a slow-burn power struggle to a full-blown, titanic showdown.
The Contest Heats up
Immediately after the 9/11 shock, a rumor was planted attributing Turki’s dismissal to the discovery of clandestine ties he allegedly maintained with Osama bin Laden’s family, who were said to be in touch with Osama and other al Qaeda elements. Our intelligence and counter-terror experts are convinced that this charge was baselessly trumped up to discredit Turki, who was in fact sacked for supporting Sultan’s bid to name the next claimant to the throne.
Abdullah understood that the GIS was too strong a card to leave in the hands of the opposite camp if he wanted to be the one break out of the standoff. Abdullah’s backers wanted to make sure that when he ascended the throne, he would determine the order of succession – not Sultan, even as crown prince.
After removing Turki from his path, Abdullah continued to strike swiftly, before Sultan’s following had time to recover. One hour later, he appointed Prince Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, half-brother of the Sudayris, to the vacant post, thereby assuming control of this powerful body. The new man had very few qualifications for his new job. In his early 70s, he spent years as a low-key diplomatic go-between for the Saudi royal family and Arab power groups, with no experience in intelligence. His appointment was no more than a sinecure amounting to a coup by Abdullah to appropriate Saudi intelligence from Sultan’s men.
Chance played into Abdullah’s hands. The 9/11 calamities were a shock to the Sultan camp when it was still reeling from Turki’s dismissal and in no state to counter Abdullah’s master move.
Then, in March this year, Abdullah struck lucky again. After seven months as intelligence chief, Nawaf went to Beirut with the crown prince to attend an Arab summit. There, he suffered a stroke and underwent emergency brain surgery, from which he has never recovered his faculties.
Nonetheless, Abdullah retains him as formal chief of intelligence.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that Abdullah’s contest against Sultan is served well by a rudderless Saudi intelligence apparatus, adrift in the stormy waters of US-Saudi tensions, the Afghan War, the global campaign against terrorism, the approaching US military offensive in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The Crown Prince believes Saudi intelligence is his best stepping stone to winning out as long as the GIS lacks an active director.
Of late, however, our intelligence sources report that Abdullah has discovered he is not the only one making hay from the intelligence leadership vacuum. Defense Minister Sultan has regrouped his forces and is quietly but aggressively building up his standing among senior and mid-level Saudi intelligence officials. As a result, Abdullah sees his hold on national intelligence chiefs slipping, as key intelligence officers whose loyalty he counted as given cross into Sultan’s fold.
Since last spring, Abdullah and his advisers have been exerting efforts to divide Sultan’s camp and so bring the standoff between them to a head. The crown prince is now energetically promoting a plan to name Prince Abdul Aziz al-Fahd, 32, King Fahd’s fourth and favorite son, crown prince after the monarch dies, rather than Sultan. (See profile of Abdul Aziz below)
Abdullah and his associates are working hard to cultivate the young prince, nurturing family ties and introducing him to Abdullah’s own friends and allies, the grass roots tribes and the clergy.
This plan has the appeal of a recipe for regenerating the geriatric monarchy. It entails leapfrogging over the heads of an ageing generation of princes and jumping the founder’s grandsons, still in their 30s and 40s, into the direct order of succession.
Abdullah Pulls Ahead
The crown prince has two things going for his vision:
First, King Fahd’s poor health. Semi-conscious most of the time, his favorite son, Abdulaziz may be able to find the right moment to get him to sign a royal warrant formulated by Abdullah’s advisers naming him next in line to the throne after Abdullah, and therefore his designated crown prince.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources hear that Sultan’s camp has taken preventive steps in Fahd’s palace to forestall this move.
Second, his plan’s potential for dividing the Sudayris.
Third, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi watchers have discovered that Prince Salman, the powerful governor of Riyadh, has developed personal ambitions that Abdullah is encouraging.
At 64, Salman enjoys great esteem as chairman of the select Royal Council that sets the order of business for the royal house and assigns the duties of state to the various princes.
To a large extent, this body, more than any other, determines how much power and influence will reside in the hands of each individual prince. This puts Salman in position for tipping the scales between the rival Abdullah and Sultan camps. Until recently, he enjoyed his high standing as a man of superior intelligence who gets things done and, although a Sudayri, is acceptable to all the squabbling factions of the royal household, including Abdullah’s clan and the Faisal princes. He was looked to more as kingmaker than future king.
However, sources abreast with the latest developments in Riyadh, report that under the influence of the escalating contest between Abdullah and Sultan, he has become more receptive to the blandishments of Abdullah and his followers, and shows signs of wanting to jump into the fray and take the offer of candidate for crown prince.
The latest move in the hidden royal succession contest surfaced this Wednesday, October 2, when Abdullah struck again. He moved General Saleh bin Taha Khosaifan out of his post as the kingdom’s top security chief, responsible for the interior ministry department investigating terrorist and subversive activities against the throne. The general was, according to DEBKA-Net–Weekly‘s sources, then kicked upstairs, appointed ministerial advisor to the king, to work under the supervision of Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, one of the seven Sudayri brothers.
Khosaifan, a top figure in Saudi intelligence, was a bulwark of the Sudayri clan. Abdullah seized on the bomb blast that murdered a German businessman in Riyadh on September 29 to disarm one of Sultan’s staunchest backers.
Since November 2000, American, British and German business executives have been the targets of five bombing attacks in Riyadh and al-Khobar. Two Britons were killed and several Britons and other foreigners wounded. The Saudis carry out their investigations under tight wraps. Some of the blasts may have stemmed from business disputes, as the Saudi authorities claim. But it is also possible that others, especially the one in al-Khobar, were the work of Islamic terrorists seeking to drive foreigners from the kingdom.
Abdullah accused General Khosaifan of falling down on the investigation into the bomb attacks, to the detriment of national security. But Sultan’s supporters swiftly countered with a demand to promote the sacked general without delay else he would defy Abdullah’s orders. Fearing further confrontation, Abdullah advanced the security chief he fired to a cabinet post
The incident shows that Sultan’s camp is now on its guard for Abdullah’s surprise moves, determined not to be caught napping again as they were last year when he fired Turki as GIS director.
It also shows that the discord between the two royal factions has become harsh enough to break out into the open.
More Saudi developments to come in future issues of DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
Saudi monarchs enjoy absolute power – as long as they stay within the bounds of religion. The roughly 10,000 royal princes, begat by two generations of polygamous sires, are riven by conflicting ambitions, jealousy and conflicting loyalties. Although the House of Saud guards its secrets well, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has been able to piece together profiles of some of the leading dramatis personae in the unfolding confrontation over who will succeed Abdullah as next monarch of the oil kingdom.
Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz
Abdullah has reigned as effective ruler of Saudi Arabia since his half-brother, King Fahd, succumbed to ill health in 1996. Born in 1923/24 as one of the 35 sons of the monarchy’s founder, Abd Al Aziz Al Saud, he stood out from his siblings as the only son of his mother Fahda bint al-‘Aasi ibn Shuraym. Unlike them, Abdullah had no full brothers, which in the Bedouin-tribal society into which he was born, was considered a mark of weakness. He had to battle his way up to the top of the ladder against his half-brothers, all princes supported by full brothers.
The present king Fahd, in particular, is one of the seven Sudayri brothers, the most formidable faction of the ruling house.
Abdullah’s mother, Fahda, was a widow when she married King Al Saud. Her first husband, a scion of the Rashid family which at the time controlled the Najd region of central Saudi Arabia, was murdered in 1920 by his cousin. The Rashids’ blood feuds cleared the way for her second husband, Al Saud, to advance his conquest of the strategic region.
Her son Abdullah’s first steps in court politics were taken in the mid-1950s in support of his half-brother Prince Talal, who was the first royal scion to campaign for the democratization of the oil kingdom. Talal led a group of dissident princes against his brother, the hidebound King Saud, who as elder son had succeeded the founder on the throne in Riyadh. Talal was an ardent supporter of the crown prince and future king, Prince Faisal.
In 1959, Abdullah and Talal parted company: Talal turned back to the king, while Abdullah built up his ties with Faisal.
Abdullah’s choice proved the wiser. In 1963, when Faisal assumed the de facto reins of government leaving Saud a figurehead (much like the relationship today between Abdullah and Fahd), he appointed the faithful Abdullah Commander of the National Guard.
This proved so effective a launching pad for his leap to the top of the heap, that Abdullah has never relinquished his command of this force, always respecting its tribal lineaments. In fact, before Faisal was assassinated in 1975, he had used it to bounce himself to be one of the top three claimants to the throne, along with two kings-to-be Khaled and Fahd.
Abdullah consistently made the right moves, both in his personal and public lives. To cement his connections with the tribal backbone of the country, he took as his first wife a daughter of a chief of the Shamar northern tribal federation, whose territories stretch across the frontier into Syria, Jordan and Iraq. His second wife is a sister of Rifat Assad’s wife, brother of the late Syrian president Hafez Assad, who was his great friend.
All of his reputed eight sons have been given high posts in the National Guard. Son number two, Mitab, his favorite, has been in charge of the modernization program for the National Guard.
The crown prince also assiduously cultivated his image as a devout Muslim, respecter of religious traditions and well connected with tribal society, to fit himself for a monarchy limited only by the dictates of the state religion, the puritanical Wahabist brand of Sunni Islam.
In 1996, when Fahd was incapacitated by a brain hemorrhage, Crown Prince Abdullah naturally moved in to take his place, although under his deal with the senior princes, Fahd will remain formally king as long as he lives.
Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd
The fourth and favorite son of King Fahd, Abdul Aziz bin Fahd was born in 1971 to Muna Ibrahim, a daughter of the Ibrahim clan, which has kinship ties with the Sudayris and strong business relations with the king, who awarded his newborn son the lifelong gift of the commissions handed him by his business associates. On the day he was born, it is said, Abdul Aziz became a millionaire. His mother’s family became his trustees and as such acquired the first Arab satellite and the MBC television station.
Educated solely in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz was not over-exposed to Western influences. As a young man, he was appointed royal adviser to the king, a sign that he was being groomed for
for high office. After his father fell ill in 1996, he was elevated to the Saudi cabinet as a minister without portfolio. That year, the 25-year old prince accompanied Abdullah on an Arab world tour, followed by trips to Europe and the United States. In Washington, his cousin, ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, organized a red carpet welcome for him. But the Americans were not too impressed with the young prince.
At home, on the other hand, he has begun to exhibit political skills and a degree of pragmatism. This aptitude came to the fore in his decision to marry out of his own Sudayri clan. He skipped Uncle Sultan’s daughter, the wife arranged for him, in favor of a daughter of Crown Prince Abdullah, Sultan’s great rival, whom he married some time in the last two years.
Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Defense Minister
Sultan, born in 1924, is one of the seven brothers who became known as the Seven Sudayris, sired by the founder of the House of Saud with Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.
In 1953, Sultan was appointed agriculture minister in the kingdom’s first government; he was transport minister in the government formed by Faisal.
His first wife, Layla al-Thunayan, was the sister of Faisal’s favorite wife, Iffat, who was born in Turkey and a liberal. She fought against impossible odds for the advancement of education for women and girls in the kingdom. In 1963, Sultan became minister of defense, a job he still holds. He also climbed up the list of pretenders to the throne after Abdullah.
The defense minister is thought to be the richest of the senior Saudi princes, whose hands also rest on key levers of power. He commands the armed forces, including the air force and military intelligence, a body of men reputed to be 70,000-80,000 strong, compared with the slightly smaller National Guard headed his foremost rival, Abdullah.
Sultan also wields almost limitless power in his position as master of the internal multibillion crown fund known as “Prince Oil” which creams off 10-12 percent of the kingdom’s oil revenues for allocation to the princes according to rank: top dollar for the princes directly related to the king; next largest stipends for the princes performing jobs and the smallest allocations to all the rest.
The defense minister additionally controls the Supreme Petroleum and Mineral Affairs Council – SPMAC, which makes him the supremo of the kingdom’s energy infrastructure. He is also believed to take his cut from middlemen in arms transactions for the armed forces, like Khashoggi, and to cash in on advantageous land deals in choice areas.
While Abdullah cannot match Sultan’s wealth, Sultan does not aspire to his rival’s tribal connections, his family ties to the northern Shamar confederation and his control of the Hijaz Tribal Council that rules the sites of the holy places of Islam in Mecca and Medina.
Sultan’s has two internationally prominent sons: Khaled, who commanded the combined allied forces in Gulf War I, and Bandar, the popular Saudi Ambassador to Washington since 1982. Bandar was unacknowledged by his father for years, because his mother was a concubine and African. Then, Sultan’s Sudayri mother, Hassa, stepped in and told her son to legitimize Bandar and raise him level with his brothers, because he was the brightest of them all. Sultan obeyed.
Sultan’s political orientation is by and large is as pro-Western as that of is full brother King Fahd, although not quite so enthusiastic.
He is far too powerful for the Crown Prince to brush aside in his present policy-making and future plans. After Fahd’s death, Abdullah will have to give the Sudayri princes and the pro-Western faction in their circle their due, if he wants to keep the royal house in some sort of equilibrium.