King Abdullah Appoints Ailing Sultan as Stopgap Successor

King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, who died aged 84 Monday, August 1, was the first Saudi ruler to institute reforms in the oil kingdom’s hidebound traditions. Most were introduced before he became king. As education minister, he put up the backs of the religious establishment by doing away with its monopolistic grip on the education system and broadening the school curricula with contemporary subjects. As interior minister, he plowed oil profits back into massive economic development, again in the teeth of the imams. He had the bad luck to ascend the throne in 1982 when oil prices had plunged to their lowest level in two decades, creating disastrous budget deficits and forcing him to abruptly suspend his development plans.
As king, while declaring the Saudi monarch Custodian of the Holy Places of Islam in Mecca and Medina, he again swam against the conservative current by consolidating Saudi ties with Washington. For the 1980-8 Iran-Iraq war, he joined the Unites States in supporting Saddam Hussein against the new Khomeinist revolutionary regime in Tehran. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, he invited US troops into the kingdom to support the first Gulf War, a step greeted by radical religious dissent.
After 40 years in public office, 23 of which he sat on the throne, Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995. The reins of the monarchy passed thereafter to his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, although he retained the formal designation of king.
Consensual backing by all the princely factions only came slowly to Abdullah. Today, aged 83, his position in the royal house and country rivals that of the powerful Sudairi brothers, sons of the founder King Ibn Saud, of which branch king Fahd was the head.
The Saudi royal court is exceptionally secretive. Very few outsiders, or even locals, are privy to its internal intrigues. Western intelligence and diplomatic watchers are more often than not in the dark. The general assumption is that the regime’s stability is the new king’s paramount concern in a period of transition exposed to oil price volatility and a violent Islamist terrorist challenge to the throne. To maintain the broad consensus inside the royal house against rival factions’ jockeying for power, another octogenarian, the senior Sudairi member, defense minister Sultan bin Abdulaziz, was nominated crown prince immediately after the death of the king was announced. Sultan has been undergoing harsh treatment for cancer this last year and is therefore regarded as a stopgap.
Sultan’s successor as next in line to the throne after Abdullah is certainly the subject of hot debate in the royal house. The Sudairis will see Sultan as seat-warmer for another Sudairi, his younger brother interior minister Prince Nayef, 72, who has won general praise, from Abdullah too, for his successful two-year crackdown on al Qaeda terrorists who have been preying on the kingdom and threatening the throne.
The princes of this faction already control key positions in the kingdom (the defense and interior portfolios, deputy ministerial posts in both those ministries and the governorship of Riyadh the capital).
Abdullah, however, has extended patronage to another royal branch, the Faisals, sons of the assassinated king Faisal bin Abdulaziz. Prince Turki bin Faisal, chief of general intelligence until the end of August 2001, has just been promoted from the London embassy to ambassador to the Washington in place of Sultan’s son, Bandar, who was the late king Fahd’s protege. Foreign minister Saud al-Faisal also expects promotion in reward for steadfastly backing Abdullah.
The new Saudi king will most likely carry straight on with the foreign and oil policies he conducted in the last decade as de facto monarch. While oil prices shot up past $61 after Fahd died, they are likely to subside somewhat to their previous level quite quickly. Abdullah starts his reign with major assets, bonanza revenues from high oil prices and the understandings on oil and Middle East policies he established with US president George W. Bush at Crawford, Texas, in the spring of 2005.

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