The nonagenarian Saudi King Abdullah took the unusual step of cutting short his annual three-month holiday in Morocco after two weeks and flying home to Riyadh on June 15.
The Syrian crisis and the secret US-Iranian nuclear talks were cause enough for concern. However, there was also big trouble at home.
Saudi opposition and Gulf sources close to Iran were this week agog with rumors that before leaving Morocco, the king had ordered former Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan put under house arrest. They said he acted after Saudi security services had detected “suspicious activities by officers of the ground forces who are close to Prince Khaled.”
DEBKA Weekly has not been able to verify those rumors. Our sources have however picked up evidence of high tension in the closed upper tiers of the Saudi royal family, serious enough to bring the monarch hurrying home.
Our intelligence sources further disclose that Saud Intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been struck down by a mysterious illness and unable to perform his duties. This too has contributed to the disquiet in Riyadh.
Abdullah started out on his usual summer holiday in Morocco fully intending to stay the full three months. He was seen off from Jeddah airport on May 31 by a large crowd of princes and dignitaries. But during his brief absence, the region saw major upsets which affected the kingdom’s interests: Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran by a landslide vote, posing the need for a Saudi policy reassessment; the Syrian crisis sank deeper into an abyss and the Obama administration suddenly decided to send arms to the rebels; a change of rulers was impending in Qatar; Muslim Brotherhood agitation was mounting against UAE government; and finally, Prince Bandar’s succumbed to illness.
Young-generation princes impatient to take over
Senior Saudi royals don’t normally interrupt their holiday plans for political crises, relying on back-channel communications or special couriers to carry through their decisions. Abdullah stayed in Morocco during the 2011 Arab revolts which displaced the rulers of Egypt and Libya.
Troubles within the royal family are another matter and call for the head of the family to intercede on the spot.
The kingdom has been bedeviled for the past eight months by the deaths of one direct heir to the throne after another – Prince Sultan followed soon after by Prince Nayef. Both were scions of the Sudairi branch of the royal house, prominent since 1982.
The incumbent crown prince, Salman, member of the same branch, is also in ill health. He is in no state to thwart King Abdullah’s drive to bring other branches of the royal family in line for top positions.
Khaled, who was dropped as deputy defense minister, was one of the Sudairi princes shunted aside. His complicity in a palace plot to restore the Sudairi princes to their former eminence and appoint them to high positions, while also determining the succession, is therefore plausible.
Several vacancies await Abdullah’s decision for replacements – deputy interior minister, foreign minister (Saud al-Faisal who has served in this post since 1975 is not a well man); and several provincial governorships. Thousands of ambitious young-generation princes are pushing for those jobs and a place in the line of succession. Many are fuming with impatience.