Stability and continuity have until now been the traditional watchwords of the Saudi royal house. King Abdullah managed the transition of heir to the throne after the death of Crown Prince Sultan on Oct. 22 with smooth efficiency. The monarch issued the necessary edicts for the handover to Interior Minister Prince Nayef, his 78-year old half-brother, while still keeping the lid on the succession issue bubbling under the surface of complacent royal stability.
But he left unaddressed the pressing demand in royal backrooms to begin passing key government posts out of the hands of the long-lived senior princes to the next generation; instead of watching the plum jobs being passed from ageing half-brother to half-brother, the grandsons of the dynasty's founding father say its is time to open the door and let them in.
Prince Nayef often stood in for Crown Prince Sultan as Minister of Defense and Aviation during his long absences for medical treatment. But on Nov. 5, the king transferred the portfolio away from the new heir and split it in two, handing the defense portfolio to another half-brother, the Governor of Riyadh Prince Salman, 76, and Aviation to Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Muhammad, who is not descended from the founder but is the king's son-in-law.
The monarch himself retained control over King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy near Riyadh which is named for him. It is there that the secret Saudi nuclear program is located. To keep control of this program, the king refrained from handing it over to the Defense Ministry and the armed forces. Abdullah's death would therefore automatically transfer Abdullah City and its nuclear program to his successor, Crown Prince Nayef.
The new Saudi leaders face two imponderables over Iran
Shiite Iran's rise as regional nuclear power finds the world's biggest oil producer, Sunni Saudi Arabia, in mid-transition to a new set of policy-makers. Given the king's great age (approaching 90) and frail health, Nayef as his successor and Salman as defense minister will soon take charge of foreign and defense policies for the entire Persian Gulf region, probably for the next decade. They have little time to learn how to work in harness and line up on decisions – especially now, in the face of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Right now, they are confronted with two imponderables:
1. Will the US and/or Israel conduct a military offensive against Iran? If so, Saudi rulers will have to decide very quickly whether to join the operation in consideration of likely reprisals from Tehran;
2. If the US and Israel decide against attacking Iran, will Saudi Arabia lead the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) nations in a pre-emptive assault on Iran's nuclear installations? Riyadh recently kicked off a military interventionist policy by sending troops and tanks into Bahrain to foil Iranian-backed Hizballah support for the Shiite revolt against the throne.
In the West, Israel is considered the leading candidate for a unilateral attack on Iran. The possibility of Saudi Arabia leading a GCC operation has escaped general notice – partly because, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Saudi experts note, Prince Nayef's views on foreign relations are still an enigma.
It was only in the last two years, when he began filling in for Sultan as defense minister, that the new crown prince began to establish regular contacts with foreign statesmen. Until then, his only foreign relations consisted of cooperation with American intelligence officials in the liquidation of al Qaeda cells in the kingdom or else with GCC colleagues.
Nayef is expected to be tough on Iran
As heir to the throne, Nayef will most certainly carry on Riyadh's traditional reliance on the United States, but the degree of intimacy he may seek is anyone's guess. If Nayef opts for close relations with Washington, he will be able to avail himself of the close contacts the new defense minister Salman developed with Washington figures in the line of past duties and his natural inclinations.
All in all, the Nayef-Salman duo may be expected to lead the kingdom to a clearer and more incisive Gulf and Middle East policy, albeit influenced heavily by the new heir to the throne's conservative nature and closeness to the clerical establishment.
Nayef, though normally taciturn, was heard using harsh language about Iran and Shiite ambitions. He was quoted recently as stating he "is against any compromise with Iran." He also backed the Saudi expedition force which rescued the Bahraini throne from a Shiite-dominated uprising.
However, there is no telling for now whether the crown prince's tough approach to a nuclear-armed Iran will lead the kingdom to closer military cooperation with the United States, or invite the US to establish a military presence in the kingdom in defiance of the religious establishment which is against any alien feet on Saudi soil.
New Saudi leaders' foreign relations up in the air
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, American servicemen are already back in the kingdom on the quiet, seven years after the last US serviceman shook its sand off his boots and moved over to new bases in Qatar and Kuwait.
King Abdullah was persuaded by his national security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who manages combined Arab intelligence operations for the Arab spring, to allow US Predator drones to take up position at the big Hamis Mushayt air base in southern Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni frontier.
Salman is likely to add his voice to that of Bandar and advocate a larger US military presence in the kingdom as a military shield against Iran's nuclear weapons.
At the same time, Nayef and Salman may decide not to neglect developing a unilateral nuclear weapons option independent of the United States.
To achieve this, Riyadh would need to turn to America's rivals, Pakistan and China. If Egypt were to achieve regime stability, it would be invited to join the Saudi enterprise and the nuclear race evolving in the Middle East in Iran's wake. But Turkey would be ruled out by the two princes, although Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan recently informed Washington that if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, Turkey would follow suit.