Saudi King Abdullah Is Bedeviled by the Succession Issue

Last Saturday, July 31, Crown Prince Abdullah summoned the senior princes of the realm to an urgent conference. They all arrived, excepting defense minister Prince Sultan who was abroad undergoing treatment for cancer..

There were three items on Abdullah’s agenda, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources reveal:

  • A consensual decision to cut off the life support system keeping King Fahd alive these last five weeks.
  • Confirmation of the crown prince as the next king and Prince Sultan as crown prince and next in line to the throne.
  • Nomination of the future third in line to the succession, with the formal title of Second Deputy Prime Minister. The choice was between three candidates, interior minister Prince Nayef, 72 – one of the seven Sudairi brothers who grew powerful during the reign of the eldest, King Fahd; minister for municipal and rural affairs Prince Miteb 77, a staunch supporter of Prince Abdullah and organizer of the local council poll at the beginning of the year, the kingdom’s first elections; and Riyadh governor Prince Salman, 69, another of the seven Sudairis.

The first two items encountered no opposition. The third ran into a debate and had to be set aside for a later date.

Straight after the conference, a deputation of three senior princes set out for the hospital with instructions for the king to be disconnected from his life support systems. They stayed to oversee the execution of those instructions.

Prior notification of this step was dispatched to US president George W. Bush. Moroccan King Muhammed VI and Algerian president Abdelaziz Boutefliqa.

A royal Saudi plane flew a messenger from Riyadh to Sharm el-Sheikh with a message for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He was informed that the Arab summit he was organizing would have to called off to make way for a royal funeral.

Our Gulf sources note that none of the Gulf emirs was informed, which shows how badly relations have deteriorated between them and the Saudi royal house.


The perennial headache – the order of succession


There is no answer as yet to the most intriguing question of all: What moved Abdullah to choose this moment to let Fahd die? The information is still confined as a secret of state to a very tight circle of senior princes whom Abdullah consulted.

It is very likely that Abdullah was influenced by the king’s condition. Since his admission to hospital he has deteriorated badly and was known to be brain dead after his other vital organs had collapsed.

From the moment he was pronounced dead, Riyadh began broadcasting to the world a message in which “continuity” was the dominant theme. The various royal factions stressed in unison that the late monarch’s policies would be continued to symbolize the consensual nature of his policy-making. Abdullah has not seen this as derogating from his authority to make decisions, but rather welcomed it as a device for deflecting pressures on him at home and abroad in the early days of his reign.

The unruffled transition of power from Fahd to Abdullah does indeed betoken the throne’s stability. However, the new monarch faces critical issues to be solved. The most pressing one for the moment is the order of succession.

Abdullah had no hesitation in appointing Prince Sultan crown prince. In the 1970s, Sultan’s name had been inserted after his own by the late King Faisal who was following the Saudi royal tradition of ordering the line of succession by seniority in age and ability. After Faisal’s assassination, Sultan and his faction tried fiddling his age, by citing his year of birth as 1922. This made him two years older than Abdullah who was born in 1924.

The two battled it out until Fahd ascended the throne in 1982 and put a stop to it by naming Abdullah crown prince with Sultan next in line.

Last year, Sultan was diagnosed with stomach cancer and underwent chemotherapy which kept him out of public activity for months on end. At Fahd’s funeral his week he had the appearance on a sick man – either because he was suffering the after-effects of treatment or because the cancer had spread to the liver.


Sultan’s age is pragmatically elastic


But the Saudi media this week gave him a new lease of life – or youth. They reported his date of birth as 1930.

Whereas 30 years ago, the Saudi defense minister needed to add to his age to climb the ladder, now he finds it prudent to peel off a few years to prove he is no geriatric but youthful enough to stand next in line to the king.

The order of succession in a lineage dominated by octogenarians attracts great interest in the kingdom and outside. Abdullah cannot afford to wait too long before tagging a “second deputy prime minister” to succeed Sultan. The issue was left dangling at the end of the conference that decided to pull the plug on Fahd, with three candidacies on the table.

A hint that the issue is unresolved could be found in the new king’s first statement that there would be no changes in government.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts infer that Abdullah was not talking about ministerial portfolios, but letting it be known that he was not yet ready to name Number Three in the line of succession. This delay, like the fact that Abdullah and Sultan are holding onto their power bases – the National Guard and the defense ministry, respectively – indicates that the question is still at issue in the corridors of power in Riyadh.

The Sudairi faction of ministers is split between the two brothers running for the job, Prince Nayef, 72, and Prince Salman, 69, whereas Abdullah prefers the third candidate, Prince Miteb, 77. All three are sons of the founding father of Saudi Arabia, King Ibn Saud, as are Abdullah and Sultan.


New reign to be marked by reform


For the new king, the slogan of continuity will be just that.

From the 1960s, Fahd and his successor Abdullah were divided on their strategic and political approaches to domestic, foreign, economic and oil affairs. Their differences began to surface in the nine years of Abdullah’s rule as de facto monarch and the gap will widen as the new reign advances.

Domestic reform in the ultra-conservative kingdom, once associated with Fahd, is increasingly attributed to his successor. While nowhere near President Bush’s notion of democracy in the Arab world, in Saudi terms, Abdullah is classed a liberal in his economic policies and conception of government.

Abdullah is freely using his liberal touch to reach out to the general populace and demonstrate how different he is from the hidebound Sudairis and how broad his popularity support base is beyond the royal family in contrast with his rivals.

A case in point is the elections he staged earlier this year for half the members of municipal councils, against the opposition of the Sudairi brothers Fahd, Sultan, Nayef and Salman. They objected to breaking with the old appointments system which permitted the princes to hand out perks to cronies. Sultan called the reform a license to elect ignoramuses.

Abdullah is also credited with extending press freedom in the kingdom, starting a national dialogue on national and social issues with leading figures in Saudi society and advocating a greater share for women in social and economic leadership.

He made strong ripples seven years ago by telling people to start supporting instead of living off lavish social welfare benefits. Then, oil prices were depressed. But although Saudi oil revenues have burgeoned in the last two years, Abdullah is unlikely to go back on his view that the public ought to pay towards the once free services it enjoys. He is also expected to call on the private sector to contribute to the national economy, in particular by creating more jobs. Unemployment in the oil kingdom is estimated at 20% of all males, with young people hardest hit.

The king has charged Dr. Ghazi al-Qusaibi, a former industry and electricity minister and ambassador in Britain with attacking unemployment as one of the toughest afflictions of Saudi society. Dr. Qusaibi has the reputation of a dynamo and innovator who will not be bound by conservative traditions when he tackles the task of putting more Saudis into jobs currently held by foreigners.

The Sudairis stand opposed to every one of the new king’s proposed reforms, whether because of their ultra-conservative outlook or personal rivalry.


Pro-Arab at the expense of pro-American orientation


The late king Fahd regarded the close Saudi-US relationship as the key to the kingdom’s security and survival. He often papered over differences between the two governments and was even willing to follow the American lead in extreme cases.

Abdullah, in contrast, values the United States as an important diplomatic partner but not necessarily as Saudi Arabia’s main ally. His first allegiance is to the Arab and Muslim sphere. The new king can be expected to take a more independent line than his predecessor on inter-Arab conflicts. He will therefore respond to the extreme anger in the Arab world over the American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan by striving to get the Americans out of both places when circumstances permit, just as he effected the withdrawal of US forces from the Saudi Sultan air base, claiming he was obeying the wishes of the Saudi people.

He is also expected to lean hard on the US administration to make Israel cede the West Bank after its withdrawal from Gush Katif and speed the creation of a Palestinian state. At the same time, Abdullah will bring pressure to bear on the Palestinians to meet their obligations under the Middle East road map.

He will also follow an independent line in Saudi relations with regional nations classified as rogue states by Washington, such as Iran and Syria. It was Abdullah, rather than Fahd, who made the effort to ease relations with Iran.

The Bush administration appears to be aware of Abdullah’s pro-Arab and pro-Muslim orientation in his foreign policy. A high-ranking American delegation led by vice president Dick Cheney and former president George Bush arrived in Riyadh on August 3 with condolences. Its mission was to plumb the parameters of the new monarch’s foreign policy and make a show of business as usual, to prevent undesirable misinterpretations of Washington’s regional and energy policies.

Saudi-US understandings on global energy were in fact drawn up during Abdullah’s talks with president Bush at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas, last April. They agreed in essence that Saudi Arabia would boost its oil output over the next two decades to 22-24 barrels a day to meet the demands of the world market, while striving to keep prices down to a level that would not threaten world recession. In the past, Abdullah advocated low output and high prices, crossing swords with Fahd on this issue. At the Crawford meeting, he came close to the late king’s position.

Bush, for his part, pledged support for Abdullah as king, which no doubt influenced his change of line, but he must also have realized the impossibility of fighting the US on an issue as central as oil.

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