Succession Up in the Air?

Washington is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf and US sources as seriously shopping for a figure more appealing than Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to sit on the Saudi throne. This was undoubtedly at the back of Vice President Richard Cheney’s mind when he whirled round Middle East and Gulf capitals this week.

American leaders never really warmed to the conservative, pious crown prince, who naturally took over the reins of government in 1996 when King Fahd suffered a stroke. At first, the traditional US-Saudi alliance appeared to be jogging along quietly, President Clinton far more tolerant of the Islamic fundamentalist predilections current in the kingdom than the present administration. But the discovery that 15 of the 19 suicide-hijackers who attacked the United States on September 11 were Saudi nationals changed all that. The breach yawned in earnest after Saudi Arabia’s deep involvement with Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group and the Taliban came to light and Riyadh refused point blank to support America’s global war on terror.

Now, the rift has gone far enough for a far-reaching CIA national intelligence assessment report to be leaked ahead of Cheney’s trip, placing a large question mark over Abdullah’s succession. CIA analysts assert that the House of Saud is sorely divided over Abdullah’s successor and this dispute could reflect on the crown prince’s chances of acceding to the throne. According to the present order of succession and division of power, the next king after Abdullah should legitimately be defense minister Prince Sultan, Abdullah’s half-brother and full brother of King Fahd. But the crown prince’s faction in the royal house is challenging Sultan’s claim and campaigning for the king after next to be the governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources confirm the message this leak conveys, namely that the crown prince has lost his rating as the US administration’s preferred candidate to succeed Fahd on the throne – unless he can meet stiff American conditions.

Those conditions were let slip to Abdullah through secret channels. They entailed his moderating the fundamentalist Wahhabi hold on the kingdom’s ruling clerical institutions – although this sect is his primary power base; shutting down the Muslim “charities” which pipe funds to extremist Islamic groups abroad, such as Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda and the Palestinian Hamas; and revising the school curriculum.

The CIA report also brings out the mounting restiveness of the Saudi middle class with the interminable infighting among septuagenarian princes in the anachronistic royal house and its demand for younger and more modern rulers to take over in Riyadh. The CIA analysts do not rule out the eventuality of these malcontents confronting the ruling establishment and holding it to account for its endemic conservatism and the social stagnation holding back progress.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Arabian experts note that the present nadir is unprecedented in the fifty-year old special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. US officials have never before voiced open displeasure with a Saudi sovereign. Neither have they ever administered a slap to Riyadh on the eve of a top-level American visit, as they did this time by releasing the negative CIA report out ahead of Cheney’s arrival.

Most Western experts on Saudi Arabia agree that Abdullah dropped his Middle East initiative into the widening chasm in the hope of limiting the damage to US-Saudi relations. But, according to our sources, he was too late.

America is already in the middle of secret preparations to evacuate its military installations in Saudi Arabia, including the important Prince Sultan air base southeast of Riyadh. By the end of the year or early 2003, at the latest, military sources do not expect a single American soldier to be left in the oil kingdom. As part of these preparations, Washington and Riyadh have quietly agreed to the handover of the American equipment at cost price. The Americans will leave behind the advanced command and control systems newly installed at the Sultan base – a facility intended after September 11 to be the nerve center of US military operations in the Gulf and Indian subcontinent. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, US military planners have drawn up a detailed alternative blueprint of the Persian Gulf bases to take US forces after they quit Saudi Arabia. Cheney carried this plan with him in his tour.

As for Abdullah’s peace initiative, the reply Cheney was briefed to convey to the crown prince was that while Washington is not against it in principle, the plan is unlikely to obtain the concurrence of the majority of Arab rulers. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources disclose the Bush administration means to use intends making use of such elements as are capable of moving the Arab-Israeli peace process forward. That also goes for its omissions. For example, Cheney will say the United States welcomes the omission from the crown prince’s plan of the intractable issue of the right of 1948 Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, which is one of the do-or-die goals of the Palestinian struggle. In fact, the Americans will use the Saudi initiative to push the Palestinian demand right off the table.

As to the Palestinian refugee communities in Arab countries – such as Jordan, where they make up more than half the population, Lebanon and Syria – the Bush administration takes the view that the time has come to settle them where they are.

This is the first time any U.S. administration has taken a clear position on the refugee issue. While the US government this week tabled at the UN Security Council a vaguely worded resolution calling for a Palestinian state, it quietly formulated a much clearer stand on the key “right of return” issue holding up a Palestinian-Israel settlement – simply by endorsing Abdullah’s Middle East initiative.

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