The death of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz, age 86, early on the morning of 22 October in a New York hospital following a long battle with cancer, left King Abdullah in an odd position: Should he appoint his half-brother, the second deputy premier and Interior Minister Prince Naif, as the new crown prince, or call on the Allegiance Council to help him choose?
Perhaps a more important question was which senior princes would end up with which strategic portfolios after a cabinet reshuffle that is expected to happen soon.
Observers of the kingdom were divided on what process the Al-Saud royal family would use in such a novel situation in which the crown prince died before the king, something that had never happened before since the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932. But one thing they agreed upon was that Naif, who is 77, would most likely be named the new crown prince.
Sultan and Naif were full brothers, sons of the favourite wife of King Abdel-Aziz, Hessa Al-Sudeiri, and part of a faction of the royal family known as the Sudeiri Seven. Princes from this group form a powerful voting bloc in the Allegiance Council that King Abdullah could not defeat easily if there were a disagreement on who should be the next crown prince.
But most analysts do not expect any fireworks now or in the foreseeable future within the royal family, which has always used consensus and seniority to reach decisions accepted by the majority of the princes, estimated to number at least 7,000.
“The Al-Saud are a formidable consensus machine. Their strength has been their ability to create coalition governments representing different family points of view broadly reflecting the minority liberalism and majority conservatism of the Saudi population as a whole,” said Robert Lacey, the author of two books on the kingdom and an observer of the royal family for more than 30 years.
King Abdullah created the Allegiance Council in 2006 in order to codify what had been until then an unwritten tradition of succession rules. Formed by the remaining surviving sons of King Abdel-Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and his grandsons, the council has 34 members. The Allegiance Institution Law, which created the council, has 25 articles that set out in detail how a new crown prince is to be chosen, and even spells out that a Transitory Ruling Council should take control of the country in the unlikely event that both the king and crown prince are incapacitated or die at the same time. In Article 7, section B, it says that: “The king may ask the Allegiance Institution to nominate a suitable crown prince at any time. In the event that the king rejects the committee’s nominee, the Allegiance Institution will hold a vote to choose between the king’s candidate and its own. The nominee who secures the majority of the votes will be named crown prince.”
The quandary that the king finds himself in is that the Allegiance Council has never been used before in its new institutionalised form, which some analysts say puts pressure on Abdullah, who is 88, to use it now and make sure that it works smoothly.
“There are some who say that the new Allegiance Council process is only supposed to become operative after the deaths of both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan, so King Abdullah can now appoint his crown prince without calling the council,” explained Lacey. “I suspect that the king will want to use the process — which was his idea — in order to get it established. After all, it is the closest thing in Saudi Arabia to true democracy — one prince, one vote.”
There is also enormous pressure on the royal family to decide who will follow Naif once he becomes king. Most of the senior princes are well into their 70s and 80s, and no star performer has appeared yet in the second generation of princes.
“The challenge facing the king and the family is deciding who comes after Naif. There are several unknowns. Will the senior princes choose another half-brother or will they make the difficult decision of moving to the next generation? From what we know of Abdullah’s political instincts, he likely prefers the latter,” said Toby Craig Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University and an expert on Saudi Arabia. “Unless something remarkable happens, and the family passes over Naif right now, the real question is who becomes second deputy prime minister. He may not use the Allegiance Council this time, but any decision will be the result of consultation and consensus within the family. If the decision takes a while, it may signal divisions within the senior levels of the family.”
Prince Naif has been the interior minister since 1975, and has a reputation of being a tough and feared conservative, who has spoken out against women being allowed to vote, jailed reformers and led a bloody fight against Al-Qaeda terrorists this past decade. After the 9/11 attacks in the US, he initially did not believe that the majority of the hijackers were Saudis. But after Al-Qaeda began terror attacks in the kingdom in 2003, he became their implacable foe.
King Abdullah appointed Naif second deputy premier in 2009 after Crown Prince Sultan kept spending long periods of time abroad for medical treatment. Although never formally announced as such, the appointment carried the unspoken assumption that the position would eventually lead Naif to be the crown prince.
Opinion is split on whether Naif would continue being such a hardliner once king, or whether he would move slightly more to the centre and not undo the reforms that Abdullah has instituted, such as allowing women to vote in 2015 and having them appointed to the Shura Council.
“Many are understandably concerned about Naif and his support for the most conservative elements of the religious establishment. But the Al-Saud have not survived because they choose one group and consistently reward it. The conservative ulema may have the upper hand for now, but if they grow too powerful, then Naif will check their ambition just like he would any other group,” said Jones.
Lacey thinks that Naif’s conservative credentials will actually allow him to do things which other kings have not been able to.
“Prince Naif has always operated, and will continue to operate within the Al-Saud consensus of gradual modernisation in the context of conservative traditions,” said Lacey. “But I predict that just as it took a conservative, Nixon, to establish US relations with China, so it will require Naif, as figurehead of the socially and religiously conservative, to push through reforms like women driving. It is my prediction that Saudi women will drive under King Naif.”
Important decisions need to be made as to who will be the new defense minister. Sultan’s son, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, who has been the deputy defense minister for the past ten years, is one potential candidate. Another candidate is Riyadh Governor Prince Salman, who is a full brother of Naif, and the most powerful royal after the king and Naif.
Strategic portfolios within the government have traditionally been carefully divided among the various power groups within the royal family. Foreign affairs have largely been handled by the Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, while Prince Naif and his two sons, who are deputy ministers of the interior, have handled internal security and certain issues such as dealing with the Shia in Bahrain. King Abdullah and his sons have been in charge of the National Guard, a largely Bedouin force, created as a counter-balance to the regular army, a sort of loyalist force to guard the royal family against any possible insurrection.
Nevertheless, no analyst believes that there will be any major changes in how the kingdom is run, emphasising that the royal family prizes stability and continuity above all else. What the ruling family will continue to face is a religious establishment that is so conservative that it still refuses to discuss such issues as allowing women to drive and does not accept the recently inaugurated King Abdel-Aziz University for Science and Technology that has coed education.
“The religious establishment will certainly attempt to stem the flow of Westernisation and undermining of what they see as traditional Islamic values,” said Lacey. “What we call ‘reforms’ they view as ‘corruptions’ — cheeky young kids and women who want their own way — and a lot of male Saudis agree with them, along with some women too.”
Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1070/re7.htm