The smooth transition of power from Saudi King Fahd who died on August 1 to Crown Prince Abdullah was a successful piece of theater.
In the wings of the performance, the Saudi royal house is roiling in a power struggle over the appointments of the next crown prince and the third prince in line to the throne. The House of Saud is embroiled in its chronic succession turmoil
(See also DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s first reference to the dispute on August 5).
King Abdullah’s 1982 appointment as crown prince, followed by defense minister Prince Sultan, aroused no controversy. This order was clearly laid down by King Faisal (1964-1975) and ratified when the late King Fahd ascended the throne in 1982.
Between Faisal’s death and the crowning of Fahd, Sultan tried hard to upset the order of succession by claiming he was older than his half-brother Abdullah and should therefore succeed ahead of him. But a consensus of senior royal princes decided that peace in the family would best be served by a division of power between the Sudairi brothers – Fahd as king and a non-Sudairi – Abdullah – as his future successor.
Sultan, a second Sudairi prince, was compensated by his de facto recognition as Number 3 in the line of succession.
However, the late king Faisal left a blank after Sultan, which King Fahd was unable to fill. In his 23-year reign, he tried to bring forward another of his full brothers, interior minister Prince Nayef but never overcame the fierce resistance of the various princely factions to accepting two Sudairis in a row, Sultan and Nayef, on the throne after Abdullah’s passing.
By the time Abdullah ascended the throne, Faisal’s legacy which had been ratified by royal consensus was winding down for lack of continuity. The new king is therefore saddled with the task of finding a solution.
There is no certainty he can find one without causing a serious split in the royal family. At present, his faction and the Sudairis led by Sultan are engaged in head-on-head combat although the principals are obliged to act with restraint during the 40-day mourning for Fahd.
Abdullah prefers to draw the contest out in a play for time to wear out the opposition and in the hope that Sultan will finally succumb to illness – he has cancer. But Sultan has no time to lose and is pushing hard to get his way. A free-for-all among the princely factions appears inevitable when the mourning period is over.
Fighting over junior appointments too
Alongside this fundamental feud, appointments to Abdullah’s cabinet are being argued back and forth with an eye on the factional balance in the royal family.
The natural candidate for second deputy prime minister (the formal title given the next crown prince after the incumbent and therefore third in line to the throne) is interior minister Prince Nayef.
Abdullah and his party object to his appointment on the grounds of his being a full Sudairi, his political views and his personal attributes – despite his success in fighting al Qaeda terrorists in the kingdom. His critics among rival princes claim that Nayef nurtured the al Qaeda threat in the first place by wasting time in fostering dialogue with its leaders and Islamic extremists instead of cracking down on the menace much earlier.
Abdullah’s problem is that he has not found a suitable candidate capable of challenging Nayef’s claim. The two put forward in the king’s name are Prince Miteb, 77, minister of municipalities and rural affairs, and Prince Talal, 74. They hold the advantage of age over Nayef, which is a major qualification in the Saudi tradition. But the same tradition also stipulates that the candidate must also be able or experienced, which places Nayef well ahead of the field.
Abdullah’s gambit in the face of this contretemps is to postpone the appointment, in which he is supported by foreign minister Saud al Faisal, who heads another non-Sudairi faction. In the interim, the king is giving his attention to the junior posts in government. Most of all he is dumping Sudairi supporters who spread through the ruling system during Fahd’s reign and inserting his own. In the meantime, Sultan may finally retire, Nayef will step into his shoes and a non-Sudairi will come next.
Saud Al Faisal, a king’s son, is a candidate for Number Three.
The National Guard and the defense ministry up for grabs
King Faisal’s legacy also awarded Abdullah and Sultan a power base each – the National Guard for the former and the defense ministry for the latter, which both have held since 1963. Although both are octogenarians and willing to finally let their domains pass into younger hands, neither has decided who is fit to receive them.
Both raised sons to step into their shoes – Abdullah’s son Prince Miteb, who steered the National Guard through a process of modernization in the last decade, and Sultan’s son Khaled, who commanded coalition forces in the 1990-91Gulf War.
The situation between them now is one of checkmate; each vetoes the son of the other; each is bent on cutting the ground from under his opposite number’s kin.
The directorship of general Intelligence is a key post which stands vacant and is therefore fair game for the internal royal power struggle. After Prince Turki al-Faisal, currently ambassador in London, left the job in August 2001, it passed to Prince Nawwaf, a close associate of King Abdullah.
In January 2005, he stepped down, probably over ill health. However, the year before, the future king inserted his own son Faisal in the agency as assistant director of intelligence and in position to take over as the next director.
While the Sudairis challenge this appointment with their own candidates, they will find it hard to overturn the tradition which has kept the post in the hands of an anti-Sudairi faction since the 1960s.
Fahd’s reign was characterized by the elder princes’ stampede to pack their offices with their own scions. With a new king on the throne, these sons are fighting to hold on to their jobs and not let them escape from their own branches of the royal family. This secondary power struggle among the next-generation princes is raging well beneath the surface of the main contest over the order of succession.
Despite the infighting in the royal house on several levels, the concept of revolution is alien to Saudi Arabia. Feuds are invariably resolved by consensus and compromise rather than strong-arm tactics. This is the strength of the Saudi royal house, but also its weakness. The order of succession dispute will no doubt be resolved by consensus and compromise, but any further delays in cutting through the Gordian Knot may well bring the Saudi royal house to the brink of a split.