Saudi-Iranian progress toward a non-aggression pact is stalled by a bump in the road, although both their leaders still hail it.
In our last issue of Aug. 24, we reported that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted on the Saudi Defense Minister, Crown Prince Salman, visiting Tehran on Aug. 20, promising him the same honors as those accorded President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Mecca. Khamenei intended to use his meeting with the Saudi prince on home ground for the grand launch of their negotiations and new understandings on Syria and Bahrain
But King Abdullah kicked back. He decided the Crown Prince would not go to Tehran and, in another rebuff to the Islamic Republic, he placed a second-tier official at the head the Saudi delegation to the Non-Aligned Summit opening there Thursday, Aug. 30, namely, his son Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah.
Does this spell finis to the negotiations for a pact? Or is it tied up with the king’s effort to rein in the crown prince before he rearranges the future line of succession to the throne in favor of his own Sudairi branch of the royal family?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources believe that the door on the Riyadh-Tehran track is not quite shut. The king in consultation with the crown prince and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan decided that a non-aggression pact would serve Iran’s interests better than it would Saudi Arabia’s. And so low profile dialogue with be allowed to continue – only without the urgency sought by Tehran.
Abdullah’s faculties are still remarkably keen
The Saudis, furthermore, are quietly holding out for an active gesture of Iranian goodwill before taking the talks up to the next plane – for instance, a directive to restive Shiite elements in the kingdom’s oil-rich eastern regions and Bahrain to desist from their shooting attacks and disturbances. No such gesture has been forthcoming from Iran.
Certain domestic events also bear on the issue: The 89-year-old King Abdullah went off on August 27 for his third vacation this year, bringing the succession issue to the forefront once again. Local newspapers reported that Crown Prince Salman would stand in for the monarch while he was on holiday in Casablanca, but US sources report that Abdullah is soon due in New York for more medical treatment.
So what is King Abdullah's real state of health?
Although photos show him hunched over and leaning on a cane, his performance as monarch, prime minister and policymaker, all rolled in one, is extraordinary. He keeps up with an exceptionally busy schedule and makes fast decisions.
He acted with commendable promptness when two sudden deaths called for quick decisions.
Prince Nayef was appointed Crown Prince nine days after Prince Sultan died in October 2011 and Salman was appointed one day after Prince Nayef’s sudden death on June 16, 2012.
Indeed, Abdullah exceptional faculties only exacerbate the concern about his approaching disappearance and state of health.
Prince Khalid, Governor of Mecca, looks like crown prince material
How far is Crown Prince allowed to share in decision-making?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in the Gulf note the many miles he has covered in his 11 months as defense minister were more befitting a crown prince even before he landed the latter appointment. He has been to Europe, paid an official visit to Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, receives innumerable visiting statesmen and officials, has made his voice heard on foreign affairs, and was deputized by the king for the sensitive task of meeting visiting Iranian president Ahmadinejad.
But his public statements are few and far between, making it difficult to gauge his real influence in national government.
Salman is more visibly active in promoting his branch of the royal family, the Sudairis. His crowning success thus far is landing the directorship of general intelligence for his nephew, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the first Sudairi to occupy this position, instead of Prince Muqrin, who belongs to the king’s own branch.
Salman is now working hard to promote the third-generation Sudairis (grandsons of founder Ibn Saud bin Abdulaziz) to key positions in the kingdom.
It is the third generation which must produce the next crown prince, who would become first in line to the throne after Salman’s accession.
The most prominent candidate, Governor of Mecca Prince Khalid al-Faisal, comes from the anti-Sudairi side of the royal family.
In this post, Khalid has gained popularity and a good press and is beginning to look like a royal figure in earnest. His chances are enhanced by the poor health of his older half-brother Prince Saud a-Faisal who is apparently keen to retire after 37 years as Saudi foreign minister.