New Amendment Dilutes Absolute Power of Future Monarchs

Change has never been the most conspicuous feature of Saudi royal government – which is why the reform-minded King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is treading so carefully and gradually to realize his vision of a more modern, Western, hi- tech and liberal society.

His well-known piety and traditional affinity to the kingdom’s clergy keep him safe from clerical ire in his low-key efforts to detach the kingdom from an over-restrictive religious grip.

Fourteen months after he was crowned King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah has undertaken his most fundamental reform to date. It aims to ensure that future monarchs continue his gradualist path of change without damaging the kingdom’s basic fabric.

The reform comes in the shape of an amendment to the Basic Law of Governance (the monarchy’s charter). The measure artfully embodies checks and balances between the traditional and modern mores of the predominantly conservative regime.

The amendment also aims to finally resolve the prime issue hanging heavily over the royal house’s future; it offer the first set of rules ever laid down in the House of Saud’s brief history to regulate the succession. These rules would strip the king of his sole prerogative to choose his successor. A future monarch will have to share this power with a new panel of princes called the Allegiance Commission.

The amendment will not go into effect in Abdullah’s lifetime; only when his half-brother Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz succeeds him on the throne.

Even the Basic Law King Abdullah wants to amend is relatively new. It was introduced by his immediate predecessor, King Fahd, in 1992 and only went so far, before running into the wrangles endemic in a royal house numbering untold thousands of princes.

Fahd kept his measure down to general formulations on future succession arrangements.

Abdullah’s amendment goes farther but still not all the way to a crystal-clear resolution.


Ibn Saud’s grandsons want a foot on the ladder


His own accession to the throne and his appointment of Prince Sultan, his half-brother, as crown prince, ended a chapter; it terminated the informal line of succession laid down in the reign of another half-brother and predecessor, King Faisal (1964-1975), which named Abdullah future king and Sultan crown prince.

The continuation was left dangling.

Up until now, the succession has moved sideways from one son to the next of the dynasty’s founder, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, father of modern Saudi Arabia. Both incumbents are octogenarians so at some point soon, the succession will have to start moving down to the next generation.

After Abdullah acceded to the throne, a lobby sprang up in the royal house to promote the Interior Minister Prince Nayef to second deputy prime minister, which would almost automatically have placed him in position as the next crown prince. Nayef is a full brother of the incumbent crown prince Sultan.

But Abdullah dug his heels in against Nayef’s promotion and candidacy.

The post of deputy prime minister was devised by King Fahd to place his own full brother Sultan in line as the next crown prince. Fahd, Sultan and Nayef all belong to the same branch of the royal family, the Seven Sudeiris, and have always sought to dominate the royal lineage. By refusing to accept Nayef’s claim to succeed Sultan as crown prince, Abdullah questions his legitimacy and fitness to be a future king of Saudi Arabia.

The king’s objection to Nayef is motivated less on grounds of clan and more by his ultra-conservatism, his ties with extremist religious elements and his transparent disapproval of the changes and development processes into which Abdullah has led the kingdom.

Nayef’s followers tried to persuade Abdullah of Nayef’s virtues, but he remained unconvinced, although they remain powerful enough to interfere with his plans.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources reveal that the king would have liked to insert foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, one generation down, into the order of succession. But Saud is not a well man. Among his troubles are lapses of memory. In any case, he is not keen on the job.

The king’s next choice was Salman bin Saud, Governor of Riyadh, who is a second-generation Sudeiri and backed by the foreign minister.

Muhammad al-Zulfa, a prominent member of the Majlis al Shura (the closest body to a parliament in the oil kingdom), who praised the law amendment put forward by the king, pointed out that it comes at “a critical moment.”


The future kings must share their prerogative to choose a successor


Whether it is critical because of their great age – the King is 84-85 and the Crown Prince 83-84 – or the recent deterioration of their health, is not clear. Some years ago, Crown Prince Sultan was believed to suffer from cancer. It is now rumored that he has had a relapse after a period of remission.

As for the king, he is in impressive command of all his faculties and a formidable ruler, although his great age causes some anxiety.

The amendment to the Basic Law of Government released this week by the royal court appears in the nick of time although it goes only part of the way to formalize the succession. It breaks with the system laid down by the 1992 Basic Law, and sets up an Allegiance Commission of royal princes which gives them a say in the appointment of successor put forward by the king. The panel will be chaired by the eldest son or grandson of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud.

The number of princes is not set out, but the wording suggests more than ten.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts estimate a panel of 16, which would provide representation for the offspring – sons or grandsons – of each of Ibn Saud’s 16 wives.

They would also include a son each of the reigning king and crown prince.

Further information about the identities of the panel members is not specified in the law amendment and may never be released given the secrecy shrouding the body.

All that has been published is the royal appointment of Khaled ibn Abdalaziz Tuweijri as its secretary-general.

The Tuweijri family is one of the king’s most loyal mainstays.

From 1962, Khaled’s father was Abdullah’s right hand as commander of the National Guard. His appointment affords the king full control of the Allegiance Commission’s proceedings.


A committee of princes may reject the king’s choice


The range of its powers is broad enough to make the panel a determining force in the royal house. These powers include:

Establishing the order of succession: The committee of princes may reject the king’s nominee for crown prince in which case it will vote for one of the remaining two candidates the king puts forward.

Confirming or disqualifying a monarch on the throne or his next in line: The Allegiance Commission is competent to rule that the king and his heir are incapable of performing their duties. This decision must be supported by a medical panel composed of the Supervisor of Royal Clinics, the Medical Director of the Special Faisal Hospital, and the rectors of three medical colleges.

Naming a Transitional Ruling Council from among its members: The Council will conduct the affairs of state for a one-week period should the king and crown prince both die on the same day or become unable on health grounds to execute their duties.

The Transitional Ruling Council will not be competent to reshuffle the government, alter the composition of the Majlis al Shura or amend basic laws affecting the ruling administration.

These provisions formally strip the king of his sole prerogative to set out the order of succession. They transfer this jurisdiction to the Royal House through the instrumentation of the Allegiance Commission.

The commission will be guided by the principles of:

The Koran and the Sunna

State Unity

Unity of the Royal House

National Unity

The People’s Interest

The order of these guidelines is calculated to address change while preserving equilibrium.

The commission owes its first allegiance to the Islamic identity of the Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and pledges to preserve that identity.

Territorial unity – or integrity – of the kingdom and unity and cooperation within the royal house come next.


Nayef is disqualified as an anti-reformer


The last principles are National Unity and the People’s Interest.

Ahead of the People’s Interest, the princes of the Allegiance Commission are bound to unity of purpose and enjoined to turn away from quarrels and strife over the succession and transition of one king to the next.

Certain pressing questions are left unaddressed by Abdullah’s amendment.

While the composition of the panel of princes grants representation to all or most of the maternal lineages descended from Ibn Saud’s wives, it does not completely obviate all major rivalries, such as the contention between the Sudeiri brothers led by Crown Prince Sultan and Prince Nayef – who aspires to the throne – and Abdullah’s faction, around which the non-Sudeiri princes have rallied. The latter is strongly opposed to the nomination of the conservative Nayef, fearing he would cut short the reform program Abdullah instituted.

Once the seismic implications of the Allegiance Committee sink in, it is bound to provoke a wholesale uproar among the royals. Crown Prince Sultan as the senior Sudeiri brother may be first to voice a grievance if the panel’s makeup does not represent enough of his supporters to back his candidate as next crown prince and heir presumptive to the throne, whether his brother Nayef or one of his sons.

Sultan and Nayef may well gang up to force their will on the Allegiance Commission’s composition or delay its convocation to give Sultan more leeway when the time comes to pick the next in line to the throne. On the other hand, if Sultan’s health deteriorates further, he and his faction will want to bring the convening of the commission forward so as to get in his say on its composition.

Delays in appointing the committee of princes will go against the interests of Ibn Saud’s grandsons, who think it is high time for two of their number to attain the twin pinnacle of the monarchy.

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