Saudi King Abdullah executed a key government reshuffle just a few days before US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was due in Riyadh this week. He dropped pro-American Prince Khaled bin Sultan as deputy defense minister and replaced him with Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Abd al-Rahman.
The new man is clearly more competent to handle contacts with Hagel on the big US arms package on its way to the kingdom, although Khaled would have been a friendlier face. However, the change clearly suited the king’s domestic political agenda.
Fahd is a former military officer who retired in 2002 with the rank of lieutenant general, after serving as Saudi Royal Navy chief. He was later appointed Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation for Civil Aviation Affairs.
His qualifications, military background and experience make him the right choice to fill the functions of defense minister at a time when the minister himself, Prince Salman, is in poor health.
Fahd’s ascent on the defense establishment’s ladder was first noted in November 2011 when, after the death of the former defense minister, Crown Prince Sultan, he was appointed chairman of the General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA).
This authority was then separated from the Defense Ministry so as to confer on Prince Fahd the rank of minister, along with his chairmanship of the boards of directors of the Saudi Arabian Airlines general corporation.
Too many deaths soften the Sudeiri royal faction’s clout
This appointment accentuated the failing fortunes of Fahd’s rival, Prince Khaled, whose expectation of the defense portfolio after Sultan’s death was disappointed. Both princes had held the ranks of deputy defense minister, but Fahd was clearly pulling ahead.
Apart from the question of his competence for the job, the timing of Fahd’s promotion now could indicate a serious falling-out between the king and the Prince Khaled who, as the eldest son of the late Crown Prince Sultan, took his place as head of the family in keeping with Saudi tradition.
Khaled’s dismissal in favor of Fahd focuses attention on the decline of the powerful Sudeiri wing of the royal family in recent years.
Founded by seven full brothers, sons of Hussa al-Sudeiri, this wing reigned for 50 years as the royal family’s strongest faction.
But the deaths of three senior members – two in recent months – took their toll: King Fahd in 2006, Crown Prince Sultan in 2001 and Prince Nayef in 2012, months after he was named Crown prince and next in line to the throne.
Two surviving Sudeiri brothers, Abdel Rahman and Ahmed, were sacked; Turki went into business 30 years ago and Salman became Crown Prince in 2011 and defense minister in 2012.
Although he seems to be carrying out his public functions, Salman is in poor health and believed to be suffering from dementia. Hence, the importance of the Fahd promotion to deputy defense minister.
But ill health has not stopped Salman working hard to place his own sons in cushy posts, which they will most likely lose when he is gone.
Upgrading rivals to offset the Sudeiris
The late Prince Sultan’s sons have had a mixed fate. Khaled’s climb to the top post in defense has just been cut short. However, the king awarded another son, Prince Bandar, a former long-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington, the plum post of Director of General Intelligence.
Not content with reducing the power of the Sudeiri princes, Abdullah has spent recent years bringing into central positions princes of rival branches and descendants of the collateral families of the vast extended royal family. He has been plucking them from the sidelines to which they were relegated by the powerful Sudeiris.
The monarch started with his own sons. In 2009, Miteb was appointed commander of the National Guard and minister of state; Abd al-Aziz, deputy foreign minister; Mishaal, governor of Najran Province and in 2013, Turki became deputy governor of Riyadh Province.
Abdullah then moved on to other non-Sudeiri branches, naming Prince Mogrin Second Deputy Prime Minister in 2012 and Khaled bin Bandar Governor of Riyadh in 2013
Fahd, the new deputy defense minister, is a scion of Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Abd al-Rahman, brother of the dynasty’s founder Ibn Saud. Faisal, who belongs to another non-Sudeiri branch of the royal family, married the king’s daughter and was appointed in 2009 Minister of Education.
He is in charge of the education reforms approved by his father-in-law.
Reform – A broader and more balanced royal family leadership
Abdullah, who is getting on for 90, knows he hasn’t much time left to build his legacy as a reformist monarch.
He grew up as the only son of one of the Ibn Saud wives and so had no full brothers as kindred allies. Over the years, during which the Sudeiris tried to block his ascent to the throne, he came to believe the governing of the oil kingdom must be shared out among the various branches of the royal house, i.e. descendants of the founder’s different wives. It was vitally important, he felt, to dilute the strength of the powerful Sudeiris, who for decades monopolized the top posts of king, crown prince, defense minister and interior minister.
To compensate for his lack of direct kin, Abdullah cultivated friendships with his half-brothers and their families, as well as with more remote branches of the extended royal family.
Since ascending the throne in 2006 – and before that, as crown prince to the ailing King Fahd – Abdullah assiduously imported non-Sudeiri princes to key positions in government – as well as his own sons and son-in-law.
Abdullah races to complete his reform program
Abdullah is not done with his drive to reform the elite level of royal government.
A vacancy still to be filled is the post of deputy to Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef. A new foreign minister is needed to take over from the veteran Saud al-Faisal and some of the district administrators.
By diversifying the royal family’s ruling structure, Abdullah will bequeath the kingdom a more cohesive and broader-based governing elite. Not only the direct Ibn Saud lines of succession, but other royal branches too, will own an interest in keeping the regime in their hands, as top posts become available to a new princely class and generation of royals. Given the many thousands of princes, this would be the closest the desert kingdom may ever come to democracy.
At the same time, his shakeup will likely fuel resentments among the displaced Ibn Saud descendants who held pride of place in Riyadh for more than half a century. They may resist being dislodged from high position by family members whom they regard as inferiors.