Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah set off for a Moroccan vacation on May 20, which – judging from precedent – will last at least for a leisurely month. Airport snapshots showed the 91-year-old monarch looking well and walking easily, in stark contrast to the photos from his late March meeting with US President Barack Obama, which showed him breathing with the aid of an oxygen tube in his nose.
The airport pictures may not be a faithful representation of King Abdullah’s state of health. His sprightly gait hardly accorded with a man of his advanced age and may have been staged.
Before jetting off from Riyadh, the king made the symbolic gesture of appointing Crown Prince Salman as naib, the monarch’s deputy. As the Saudi king is by definition prime minister, the crown prince already officiates as acting prime minister in his absence. But the additional designation of naib meant that the king had temporarily devolved his powers to his deputy.
The title of naib has been used just once before. In March 1964, at the height of the power struggle between then-King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal, Faisal appropriated the title of naib for himself.
Two days later, the government ordered all of the king’s powers – legal, executive and administrative – transferred to Faisal, citing the king’s inability to govern on account of poor health.
While no such order was forthcoming from Riyadh and the king still retains ultimate authority, bestowing the title of naib on Salman was a hint that the king’s health may not be entirely stable.
Prince Muqrin’s rising fortunes raise a swarm of opponents
Another sign of the king’s unease about his state of health was his appointment in late March of Prince Muqrin as deputy crown prince, which makes him second in line to the throne after Crown Prince Salman Although he is the youngest son of Ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, Muqrin’s pedigree is not up to snuff in the eyes of many royals and caused a family uproar.
The appointment gained only partial endorsement from the Allegiance Council, on which all the family branches of Ibn Saud’s many sons and grandsons are represented.
This council was established by King Abdullah in 2006 as a legal mechanism for selecting the king and crown prince. About a quarter of the princely members opposed Muqrin’s appointment. Among them, was Prince Talal, who complained that princes of higher seniority had been passed over in favor of Muqrin and, moreover, the traditional principle of horizontal succession among Ibn Saud’s sons had been ditched.
The designation of Muqrin as deputy heir to the throne indicated that the next crown prince will be drawn from Ibn Saud’s grandchildren for the first time.
But even the princes of that generation were not wholeheartedly behind Muqrin. They are concerned that once in power, he will return Abdullah’s favor and jump the king’s son, Prince Muteb bin Abdullah, now head of the National Guard, to the top as the next crown prince and first in line to the throne.
Some of the royal appointments motivated by revenge
In another new turn for the ultra-conservative kingdom, some of Ibn Saud’s disaffected grandchildren turned to social media to vent their ire. They did not dare criticize King Abdullah openly for fear of being charged with treason. Instead, they lashed out at Khaled al-Tuwaijri, President of the Royal Court, accusing him of overstepping his authority and meddling in royal affairs, although he is a commoner.
This resort to social media for complaints against superior authority is a novel and disquieting element in Saudi politics. It breaks sharply with the cherished custom of airing political grievances in private.
The rising generation of the House of Saud is proving bolder than its elders, while still treading warily to avoid being caught directly assailing the king or crown prince.
But make no mistake – though veiled, the object of their disgruntlement is King Abdullah over the royal reshuffle he has set in motion in recent years.
Some of these personnel changes appear to be motivated by revenge and self-interest. The monarch accordingly retired the sons of the King Fahd (1982-2005) from key government posts, as well as Princes Khaled, Bandar and Salman, the sons of the late Prince Sultan, who served as Abdullah’s own crown prince until his death in 2009.
All the dispossessed royals belong to the Sudairi branch of the royal family that ruled the oil kingdom from 1982 until its head, King Fahd, died in 2005.
The defense ministry at sixes and sevens
In their place Abdullah promoted his own offspring while also settling a long score with the Sudairis.
When Abdullah served Fahd as crown prince, the rival Sudairi clan undermined him and conspired to pass him over as first in line to the throne, in favor of their Sudairi brother Sultan. In this they failed.
But when it was his turn to order the line of succession and make government appointments, King Abdullah blocked his own crown prince Salman’s attempt to install his son Mohammed as defense minister.
Salman’s record in defense is hardly outstanding, to put it mildly. He is also rumored to be in poor health and not fit to succeed to the throne.
The defense ministry which he heads is consequently a bit of a puzzle. Sources in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf tell DEBKA Weekly that the frequent changes of personnel and the ongoing infighting make it hard to determine who really runs this key department and the Saudi armed forces.
The military appears to be at sixes and sevens. Certain princes in military or defense posts – and even some outside the defense establishment – have taken to striking out on their own for business transactions with foreign elements. This was unheard of until very recently. Abdullah has been wont to keep all foreign contacts under his personal control.
But the enterprising young princes may feel they are jumping the gun and attending to their personal interests before they too come under the axe, because the army’s top command has been undergoing reshuffles with unsettling frequency.
Royal family jittery over frequent personnel changes
For instance, Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled was ousted in April 2013, and replaced by Salman – both sons of the late crown prince Sultan.
Shortly after, in May 2014, Salman too was dismissed in favor of the Riyadh Governor, another Prince Khaled, this one the son of Bandar, who served as commander of the Saudi army’s ground forces until 2013.
It is suspected that Khaled was kicked over to defense to clear the way for Abdullah to award the governorship of Riyadh to one of his sons, so adding to his own concentration of power.
Also in mid-May, King Abdullah sacked the army’s chief of staff, his deputy, and the air force and navy commanders.
King Abdullah is believed to have completed his current round of military appointments before flying off to Morocco – at the military’s request.
Some military stability is urgently needed in view of the reported failure of the massive military exercise, called Abdullah’s Sword, conducted by the royal armed forces in late April. This fiasco is the subject of judging from persistent chatter in Riyadh’s ruling circles, according to our Gulf sources.
The vaunted Saudi war game reported to be a fiasco
But nothing seemed amiss in the closing parade of the exercise, at which nuclear missiles were exhibited for the first time and top Saudi military and security brass were on view on the saluting stand.
Also present, were eminent foreign visitors including Bahrain's King Hamad, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed and Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif.
But those in the know say the Saudi air, naval and commando forces taking part in the exercise spectacularly failed to complete their missions.
Despite his advanced age and declining health, the king and his court still rule the roost in Saudi Arabia. Abdullah shapes the kingdom’s political and social agendas and dictates foreign relationships, including the extent of Riyadh’s cooperation with Washington and ties with Gulf neighbors.
It was the king who decided to turn the kingdom’s policy on Syria around from active backing for the rebels to a withdrawal from direct involvement, while waiting to see who came out on top in Damascus.
This royal turnaround cost Prince Bandar his job as Director of Intelligence. He was dismissed for leading Saudi championship of the rebel cause against Bashar Assad.
Abdullah opts for openness with Iran and improved ties with Obama
The king has also tempered his antagonism to Tehran, opting for more openness and dialogue with the rival Shiite rulers in Tehran. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal was instructed to invite Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif for a visit.
These changes came hot on the heels of the Saudi ruler’s decision to extend a limited measure of cooperation to the Obama administration’s policy in the region, a decision he reached ahead of their March summit in Riyadh.
The king is placing strong focus on strengthening ties with Egypt under its new ruler, the former army chief Abdul-Fattah El-Sisi who was elected president this week. He is also urging Washington to cultivate a better rapport with Cairo and actively support the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
But despite Abdullah’s firm hand on many issues, the first chill draughts are beginning to be felt in lavish royal palaces and top military ranks, together with a sense that those gusts could switch to gale-force storms when Abdullah quits the scene.