Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz's long-expected passing aged 87 in New York Saturday, Oct. 22 could not have happened at a more auspicious time for his presumed successor, Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, to move up as next in line to the throne after King Abdullah.
With the rest of the Arab world beset by anti-regime uprisings – and just two days after Libya's Muammar Qaddafi was brutally killed in the streets of Misrata – the Saudi kingdom's 60-year old succession system offers a singularly smooth transition of power.
debkafile's Saudi experts point to three reasons why the hardheaded Prince Nayef, aged 78 (a spring chicken in the Saudi gerontocracy), may already have been chosen to step into the shoes of Sultan, who served as First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and Aviation:
1. Nayef has a solid record of suppressing domestic opposition with an iron fist, including the challenge posed by al Qaeda.
2. He is a conservative in Saudi terms, meaning he is close to the clerical establishment.
In all five Arab nations overtaken by uprisings, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya, the Muslim clergy sided with the rebels against the regime. In Saudi Arabia, the imams are full partners with the royal rulers and will be especially supportive of Nayef.
3. The frontrunner for Crown Prince also maintains cordial relations with foreign Muslim Brotherhood chapters. Since the Brothers appear to be on their way to power in the new societies thrown up by the Arab "spring" – a trend with which President Barack Obama sympathizes – Nayef is the right man at the right time to lead the oil kingdom into integration with the dominant trend.
Although the Saudi royal house is obsessively secretive about its internal affairs, it was obvious Wednesday, Oct. 19 that something momentous was happening: As Sultan lay at death's door in a New York hospital, King Abdullah, aged 89 or 90, summoned an urgent meeting of the princely Allegiance Council to his own bedside in the hospital wing of the royal palace in Riyadh.
He too was laid up after a minor operation to help strengthen his spine had been performed by surgeons and staff summoned from the United States.
The picture appearing on this page is the first ever of the Allegiance Council meeting at a Saudi king's bedside and also the first photograph of a Saudi monarch minus his kefiyeh headdress. Both images provide glimpses of the disarray in Saudi royal circles.
King Abdullah formed the Allegiance Council five years ago. Whereas the king and crown prince had formerly been selected mainly by seniority among the many sons and grandsons of the founder and deals among the branches, the incumbent king decided it was time to have a royal mechanism for managing the transition of power in an orderly manner to ensure stable rule.
The new council was to have begun functioning after Sultan succeeded to the throne. However, as soon as the news of Sultan's imminent death reached Riyadh, the king called the Allegiance Council into session to approve the Nayef appointment without delay.
The process was not as untroubled as the king had hoped.
Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, Nayef's most vocal opponent was conspicuously absent from the crisis meeting as were representatives of the royal branches which had been dropped out of the line of succession.
Nayef's appointment will not be formally announced until after Sultan's state funeral next Tuesday – or even the customary 40 days of mourning. This will give his rivals time to jockey for position – either to thwart it or cozy up to the future king.
The next contest will occur when the Allegiance Council has to choose Nayef's successor as crown prince, or third in line to the throne. For now the contest is wide open.
Despite his great age, King Abdullah appears to be in full control and going forward steadily with his program of reforms, especially the steps for the partial enfranchisement of women. But he is getting progressively weaker and Nayef's position a heartbeat away from the throne should be counted in months rather than years.