King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, 82, who has not ruled the Saudi kingdom since his 1995 stroke, is failing after six weeks in hospital. He no longer receives visitors, senior royals have stopped saying he is recovering momentarily and non-Saudi sources revealed that he has been hooked onto a respirator and weakening.
Over the years since he has been indisposed, the royal family have been poised for change. At first, it was suggested that the ailing monarch abdicate and hand over to his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, who is a hale and hearty 81. Later Fahd’s faction including some of his sons and Abdullah decided to leave the king with the formal title and accept Abdullah as de facto ruler. This arrangement has survived for seven years, although not all the king’s full brothers of the Sudairi clan were happy with the situation – for instance, defense minister Prince Sultan. Princes close to Fahd would wheel the king out during lucid spells and make up quotes for attributing to him to show he was still in control.
However during the decade of waiting for change and a stable ruler in Riyadh, some of the once prominent first-generation princes have faded, whether because of old age or ill health or changed circumstances.
For 43 years, Sultan, 77, was the most prominent claimant as next crown prince after Abdullah’s accession. Two years ago, he contracted cancer and may no longer be fit to assume this key royal duty. Since the defense minister’s health began to fail, another full brother Prince Nayef stepped into the limelight as interior minister in charge of routing al Qaeda terror. He has now moved into line as the leading claimant for the number two spot when Abdullah becomes king. In the past year, he has succeeded brilliantly in the war against terror – apparently in close cooperation with Abdullah.
Sultan may accept Nayef as the next crown prince after Fahd’s death.
Has Bandar resigned? Or Is he jockeying for a post-Fahd position?
For years, the order of succession has been the object of intense through quiet wheeling and dealing among the leading princes. The most active factions are the Sudairis, a royal branch headed by Fahd, whose most prominent elder members are Sultan, Nayef, and the governor of Riyadh Salman; the anti-Sudairi factions – one led by Abdullah, another by the sons of King Faisal, foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and the ambassador to London, Turki al-Faisal.
All the princes have inserted their sons in prominent positions as deputy ministers or acting heads of the ministries or bodies that they head. Some may lose their jobs if their fathers are ousted, others may step into their shoes.
The latest development in the succession race comes from Washington. Since late June, it has been rumored there that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the 56-year old son of the defense minister, has resigned as Saudi ambassador, a post he has filled for 23 years.
Attempts to confirm the rumor at the embassy have met with ambiguous responses rather than a clear yes or no. It would not be the first time in his long years in the US capital that Bandar has sought promotion.
There was a time when Fahd and Saud al-Faisal were at odds and it looked as though the foreign minister was on his way out. Bandar then took the opportunity of signaling he wanted the job. He was well qualified. In the 1980s, Fahd was wont to go round Saud’s back and assign his nephew important inter-Arab missions, such as brokering a ceasefire in the Lebanon civil war, or taking a hand in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In 1991, Bandar represented the Saudi King at the Madrid peace conference rather than foreign minister Saud.
The latest gossip going round is that Abdullah has promised to appoint the ambassador director of general intelligence, a post that fell vacant almost a year ago when the incumbent Prince Nawwaf quit for reasons of ill health.
Princes on the move
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi sources cannot confirm that any such promise was made.
This is because the post has since the 1970s been the province of a non-Sudairi prince. Abdullah would hardly want to upset the delicate balance between the rival factions of the royal house and stir up a hornets’ nest by handing this post to a Sudairi.
Another rumor holds that Bandar will be offered the interior ministry which is slightly less improbable. As interior minister, Nayef has fixed his son Ahmed up with a senior position in the ministry. True, if Nayef wins the race for next crown prince and his son quits the ministry, handing the portfolio to Bandar would be deemed appropriate by the many-factioned royal family.
That said, Prince Bandar suffers from two serious problems. He is not in good health. He has not disclosed what is wrong with him but rumor again suggest he might be in the first stages of Parkinson’s disease and sunk in deep depression.
The other problem dogging him all his life is his rejection by his biological father. Sultan always despised his eldest son because his mother was a servant and preferred his younger son Khaled, who was commander of joint forces in the first Gulf War and is at present deputy defense minister.
Bandar’s career was avidly promoted by his grandmother Hussa al-Sudairi who recognized his talents when he was still a youth, and King Fahd, who appreciated his ability and entrusted him with the key ambassadorial post in Washington as well as difficult missions.
The rumor of his resignation was no doubt sparked by Fahd’s deteriorating condition. It was put about to thrust his name forward as a candidate for high office in the administration Abdullah will install after the monarch’s death.