In the ten short weeks since his coronation, Saudi King Abdullah has embarked on a twin program to restructure the royal administration at its highest level. His eye, at 83, is clear enough to fix on two radical goals. One is to pump young blood into the top-heavy gerontocracy governing the oil kingdom and the second is to wrest control of security from his half-brother, Prince Nayef, 72.
As interior minister, Nayef has for the last two years held the reins of the war against terror. The campaign invested his ministry with exceptional power as the central hub of all security affairs in the kingdom.
The king’s first began stripping Nayef of his powers by appointing the former ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar secretary-general of the national security council (See last week’s DNW issue 226 Oct. 21).
A few days later, he named his half-brother Prince Muqrin chief of general intelligence to fill the vacancy left by Prince Nawaf, a close associate of Abdullah, who quit for reasons of ill health nine months ago. A former Saudi air force pilot, Muqrin served with credit from the 1980s as governor of one province after another. His last post was governor of the holy province of Medina.
Before Nawaf, Prince Turki al-Faisal ruled general intelligence for 23 years. His resignation was forced in 2001 by a quarrel with interior minister Prince Nayef. He was then appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Muqrin’s appointment started another round of musical chairs among the senior royal princes. One key loser is Prince Saud, son of the late King Fahd, who resigned as deputy chief of general intelligence when the new man, Muqrin, stepped in.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts note Abdullah as gone somewhat further than the five kings before him in rearranging the balance of power at the top of the royal tree. The most conspicuous result is to take the interior minister’s power and influence several notches down, although he remains in full charge of the war against al Qaeda.
In the early part of the campaign against Islamic radicals, Abdullah and Nayef fell out over tactics; Abdullah demanded a harsh crackdown, while Nayef opted for a softly, softly approach to curb their violence and dialogue with the cell’s leaders, supporters and likeminded intermediaries.
From brother to son, instead of brother to brother
The two princes squabbled over other issues. But at bottom of their arguments was Abdullah’s determination to push Nayef down the line of succession to the throne against Nayef’s equal insistence on putting himself forward as number three in the royal hierarchy. Since ascending the throne, Abdullah is more resolved than ever to stymie the interior minister’s climb towards the number three position.
The other striking feature of the new round of appointments is the drop in average age of the new appointees. While he is the sixth monarch to be one of the 42 sons of the founder Ibn Saud, he has begun passing the succession to himself and Crown Prince Sultan, 77, down to sons instead of brother to brother.
In other words, Abdullah is in the process of skipping a generation. His new appointments bring forward the sons to infuse new life into the ageing monarchy. Prince Bandar is 56, Muqrin, 60; Prince Turki al-Faisal (60) has been transferred from London to Washington to take Bandar’s place as Saudi ambassador. His replacement in London is Prince Mohammed Bin Nawaf (53), and Muqrin’s successor as governor of Medina is Prince Abdelaziz bin Majd (45).
His plan cuts the interim generation, such as Nayef and his full brother, the Riyadh governor Prince Salman, 69, out of the race to the throne. Younger blood will occupy the top level of government for the next two or three decades.
Abdullah’s third objective is a purge of the late King Fahd’s offspring. The former king’s youngest son Abdulaziz bin Fahd, lost his job as chief of the royal bureau when Abdullah ascended the throne. Saud bin Fahd was next to go as deputy chief of general intelligence, a job he held from 1985. Another Fahd son, Prince Mohammed bin Fahd (55) has kept his job as governor of the Eastern Province after twenty years.
Fahd, unlike former Saudi monarchs, placed his sons in top positions in the royal administration. They were not always best qualified. Saud was not reputed by the professionals to be up to the high intelligence post he held and Abdulaziz was far from outstanding. When he visited the United States in 1998 to a red carpet welcome, his American hosts were not impressed.
Mohammed is the next of Fahd’s son to come under the microscope.
It is still early days for the new king, but Abdullah is beginning to shape up as an authoritarian monarch. He is willing to award the requisite respect and honor to Crown Prince Sultan and his sons, but he will make sure to keep the reins of important decision-making firmly in his own hands.