Two Princes at Daggers Drawn

Our electronic newsletter was the first international publication to candidly expose the rivalries and intrigues gripping the Saudi royal house at this time. DNW began running the first of this exclusive series on October 4, 2002. One segment of the first article is condensed here for the benefit of debkafile‘s readers:
The three overriding concerns exercising the Saudi royal family this past year were the state of relations with the Bush administration – the president and vice president, in particular; the handling of its unacknowledged ties with al-Qaeda and other radical Moslem groups – the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip and extremists in Pakistan, Bosnia and Chechnya; and the coming US war against Iraq.
Overlaying all these concerns, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say, is the ballooning crisis presented by the unresolved order of succession to the throne. When ailing King Fahd dies, his accepted heir is Crown Prince Abdullah. But who is next in line as crown prince and heir to the throne?
The candidate accepted by princely consensus till now was the defense minister, Abdullah’s half-brother Sultan. But advancing years are a biological bar to his ascent to the throne. Sultan is either the same age as Abdullah, who is 77 or 78, or a year older and not in good health. The House of Saud must therefore look for its next second-in-line to the crown for the first time in the next generation. But before stepping aside, Sultan demands a say in his replacement in the teeth of Abdullah’s objections.
The crisis in the Saudi royal family arises out of this battle.
Both elderly princes are marshalling support from the senior ranks of an estimated 10,000 royal princes. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and his clan have moved into the lead of Abdullah’s camp, helping to offset the crown prince’s disadvantage as only son of one of the founder’s wives, with no full brothers.
Abdullah’s second son, Mitab bin Abdullah, 40, is his father’s point man in the power struggle. He keeps his finger on the right pulses in Abdullah’s main power supports: The officers of the 50,000-man National Guard, of which the Crown Prince is commander in chief; the provincial governors and the tribal chiefs.
His foremost allies are Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdul Aziz, 40 plus, Governor of the Holy City of Mecca, and Prince al-Walid bin Talal, who is rated one of the richest men in the world.
Al-Walid won notoriety by writing a check of $10 m for the victims of the 9/11 attacks on New York City, only to have it rejected by city officials when he demanded a re-assessment of American Middle East policies. Another Saudi mogul, Prince Mashal bin Abdul Aziz, is also a partisan.
However, the defense minister Prince Sultan is thought to be the richest of the senior Saudi princes. He also commands the armed forces, including the air force and military intelligence, a body of men reputed to be 70,000-80,000 strong, compared with Abdullah’s slightly smaller National Guard. But his most decisive clout comes from the job he holds as master of the internal multibillion crown fund known as “Prince Oil” which creams off 10-12 percent of the kingdom’s oil revenues for allocation to the princes according to rank: top dollar for the princes directly related to the king; next largest stipends for the princes performing jobs and the smallest allocations to all the rest.
The defense minister additionally controls the Supreme Petroleum and Mineral Affairs Council – SPMAC, which puts him in charge of the kingdom’s energy infrastructure. He is also believed to take a cut from middlemen in arms transactions for the armed forces, like Khashoggi, and to cash in hugely on advantageous land deals in choice areas.
Sultan is backed up by two internationally prominent sons: Khaled, who commanded the combined allied forces in Gulf War I, and Bandar, the popular Saudi Ambassador to Washington since 1982.Sultan’s political orientation is by and large far more pro-Western than the conservative, inward-looking Abdullah.
While Abdullah cannot match Sultan’s wealth, Sultan does not aspire to his rival’s tribal connections, his family ties to the northern Shamar confederation (through his mother) and his control of the Hijaz Tribal Council that rules the sites of the holy places of Islam in Mecca and Medina. By and large, the defense minister is far too powerful for the Crown Prince to easily brush aside. After Fahd’s death, he may find that as king he will have to give the pro-Western Sudayri princes their due in order to keep the royal house in equilibrium.
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