The moment of truth in the race for the successor of 90-year old Saudi King Abdullah is fast approaching.
The monarch is coming close to the end of his tether although in full command of his political faculties. These days he works part-time, although when it comes to high policy on international and domestic matters, he is still critically involved.
For instance, it was Abdullah who received US Secretary of State John Kerry, when he visited Riyadh on Nov. 5, for a vain attempt to ease tensions between Washington and Riyadh.
But he no longer travels overseas on state visits.
In domestic affairs, the king leaves routine administrative matters to others, allowing Crown Prince Salman to stand in for him in the chair of weekly cabinet meetings. But he continues to lay down the law on key affairs of state, such as princely appointments and promotions.
In 2011, Abdullah took a strong hand in preparing the kingdom to ward off the likely spillover of the Arab Spring in the form of spontaneous popular and minority protests.
The royal order of succession has been a vexing item on the national agenda for many years, usually left up in the air until the last moment unless some crisis forces the issue.
In October 2011, the incumbent crown prince Sultan died, soon followed by his successor Prince Nayef, who gave up the ghost a few months later in June 2012.
Prince Muqrin versus Prince Mitab
This unforeseen sequence of deaths left a gap that had to be hurriedly filled. Nayef’s full brother, Salman, was elevated to the posts of Crown Prince, Defense Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister.
Then in February 2013, his half-brother Prince Muqrin, special adviser to the king, was named Second Deputy Prime minister, which placed him second in the line of succession after Salman.
Since Salman took over as Crown Prince in June 2012, rumors have abounded that he suffers from Alzheimer’s. He came to this high post after 50 years as governor of Riyadh Province with no real experience in national government. Neither has he ever displayed any leadership qualities. For whatever reason, DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf sources report that a consensus is forming in the royal house that he is not a fit successor to the throne and needs to be replaced.
The race is on for his replacement, an issue which deeply divides the royal house.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and General Intelligence Director Prince Bandar bin Sultan have been lobbying on behalf of Prince Miteb, King Abdullah’ son and head of the National Guard. This is a military force 100,000 strong made up of members of tribes loyal to the Saudi throne. It is essentially pro-American in orientation, arms and training.
Miteb’s candidacy is opposed by a rival group of princes whose politics are conservative.
The compromise candidate emerging at this time is Prince Muqrin, who at 68 is the youngest son of the royal house’s founding father and would most likely be the last member of his generation to ascend the throne before the grandsons start crowding in.
Pandora’s Box of Ibn Saud’s grandchildren
But the conservative faction has put up its own candidate.
He is Ahmad bin Ibn Saud, who took over the influential ministry of interior after the death of his brother Nayef. He only lasted five months in the job before being pushed out by Nayef’s son, Muhammad.
The relative size of support in the royal family for Muqrin and Muhammad has not been determined.
If Muhammad is chosen as Crown Prince, Muqrin will most likely stay where he is as second in line to the throne. But his appointment as crown prince would guarantee a smooth transition after Abdullah goes. On the other hand, it would open up a whole new Pandora’s Box, crammed with the founding father’s grandchildren.
They have never been authoritatively counted, but are estimated to number at least 10,000 princes. No more than a few hundred can expect to attain decent public positions in the government, army, security forces and provincial administrations.
A culling process of this third generation was conducting in recent years to select an elite group qualified for promotion and the succession. Two candidates stood out: King Abdullah’s son, the National Guard commander Miteb, and Nayef’s son Muhammed, who as interior minister has at his command a powerful military-cum-police-cum- ntelligence service.
Both were born in the 50s, have good connections in Washington and keep their political views close to their vests – especially on controversial domestic affairs of high popular interest – so as not to compromise their future prospects.
Finally choosing candidates according to ability – not birth
It is not known why the conservative princes were against Mitab’s placement in the line of succession to the throne – possibly because it would introduce King Abdullah’s branch of the royal family into the contest for future monarchs at the expense of the descendants of branches which have traditionally shared out the perks and plums of monarchical rule among themselves.
The two powerful princes, Saud al-Faisal and Bandar bin Sultan are leading the drive to replace Salman as crown prince because they have excluded themselves from the succession race.
Foreign Minister Saud, aged 74 and the son of King Faisal, is thought to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease; whereas Intelligence Chief Bandar, although only 64, is out of the running because although his father, Sultan, was crown prince, his mother was a Sudanese slave.
It is important to note, say DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi experts, that the two veteran princes, by working together to replace Salman as crown prince with Muqrin, have broken new ground in Saudi royal politics. Born to different branches of the Saud family, their association for the first time transcends royal descent – Sudairis versus anti-Sudairis – and brings them together to select candidates for high office according to their ability and fitness for the job, rather than their father’s place in the royal pecking order.