There has always been something rotten about the manner in which the House of Saud conducts its affairs. Deeply secretive, its palace intrigues often seep into the public domain because there are so many competing interests vying for power and influence. This has become especially pronounced since the older generation of Saudis — a whole tribe of sons that Abdul Aziz ibn Saud sired from his 19 wives — is beginning to disappear because of old age. Both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan are in their mid-eighties (85 and 83 years-old respectively). What has heightened concern is that Sultan is in poor health and he does not get along with Abdullah not merely because the king is not one of the Sudairy brothers to which Sultan belongs (the seven children Abdul Aziz had from Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairy) but because Sultan has always had different priorities. This has given rise to intense rivalry among the hordes of second generation royals as to who is best qualified to become crown prince should Sultan die before Abdullah.
Two groups have emerged to stake a claim: the Ibn Faisals and the Ibn Sultans. Their rivalry may appear surprising but there are reasons for their dislike of each other despite family ties binding them. Saud al-Faisal, son of the late king Faisal, has been the kingdom’s foreign minister since 1975. His sister Haifa is married to Bandar bin Sultan, the most upstart member of the Saudi clan notorious for his foul language. Strictly speaking, Bandar should be grateful to his cousins for what their father, Faisal did for him. Bandar’s mother Khaziran was an African concubine and slave girl of Sultan who did not recognize Bandar as his son. Yes, the American-friendly Saudis still maintain slave girls but one would not read about this in the Western media!
It was King Faisal who forced his half-brother Sultan to accept young Bandar. Faisal did more: he gave his own daughter in marriage to Bandar to facilitate his acceptance in the Saudi clan. But gratitude is not one of Bandar’s strongest attributes; his ruthless ambition gets the better of him. He has made no secret of his dislike of his cousin and brother-in-law, Saud al-Faisal, saying that he is no longer fit to be foreign minister because he suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Bandar wants him out of the way to smooth his own rise to power.
Bandar is also the most staunchly anti-Iranian member of the Saudi clan. In order to undermine Hizbullah, he has funded the terrorist group, Fatah al-Islam, according to American journalist Seymour Hersh. In May 2008, Bandar had secretly met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and urged him to attack and eliminate Hizbullah. He said the Saudis would foot the entire bill. The beating the Israeli army got in its war of aggression against Hizbullah in the summer of 2006 still fresh in his mind, Olmert was not going to risk another misadventure even if all expenses were paid. Bandar has also conspired with the American neo-cons, especially Elliott Abrahms, to instigate a US attack on Iran before it “acquires nuclear weapons.” Even the gun-toting Ameri-cans understand not to make such a mistake but it was not for lack of trying on the part of Bandar who has consistently tried to undermine relations between the kingdom and Iran. In March 1985, he had conspired with the CIA to assassinate Shaikh Seyyed Muhammad Husain Fadhlallah of Lebanon. The Shaikh left Juma prayers earlier than scheduled before a powerful car bomb destroyed an entire apartment complex killing 92 people and injuring 200 others. American journalist Bob Woodward has given details of Bandar’s role in the terrorist act in his book, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981–1987.
It is, however, the internal jockeying for power that have led observers to speculate that with the older generation of Saudis out of the way, there will be brutal backstabbing that might result in the kingdom fracturing along its numerous fault lines. It is not as if all of Abdul Aziz’s sons are dead. Together with Talal, five other Sudairy brothers are still alive: Abd al-Rahman, Nayef, Turki, Salman and Ahmed. Talal is something of a maverick and is out of the running. In the sixties he had advocated a constitutional monarchy that landed him on the wrong side of the Saudi clan and into exile in Egypt. His Saudi passport was also withdrawn. He later recanted and was allowed to return but on the promise that he would not express his unorthodox views in public or dabble in politics. Talal has since concentrated on business.
Nayef has been interior minister since 1975 while Salman is governor of Riyadh. The Saudis have a habit of keeping princes in one position virtually forever. This is not merely for continuity; the Saudi clan considers the kingdom as its personal property so any post occupied by one of the princes is treated as a birthright. Non-royals are given positions at the sole discretion of the king and just as quickly removed if the ruler is displeased over anything.
Controversy regarding succession to become Crown Prince should Sultan die before the king does has been temporarily shelved by Abdullah by creating a council that will choose the crown prince. This has not deterred Bandar who currently holds the position of secretary general of the National Security Council from indulging in intrigue. He believes his real strength lies in his close connections with the Americans, especially the Bush family, and the neo-cons. In Washington where he served as Saudi ambassador from 1983 to 2005, he was known as the “White House errand boy”. Bandar leads the faction that believes the position of crown prince should fall to one of Sultan’s 17 sons upon his death and while the eldest among them is Khalid, Bandar thinks he is more qualified to assume this position. So he is competing on two fronts: with the Ibn Faisals and his step-brothers from among the Ibn Sultans who still look down upon him as the son of an African concubine slave woman. Racism runs deep in Saudi Arabia although his stepbrothers’ contempt for Bandar may be justified for many other reasons as well.
While these internal intrigues are underway, king Abdullah nudged the kingdom toward a more moderate position in religious affairs by replacing Sheik Ibrahim al-Ghaith as head of the powerful Commission for the Promo-tion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, with Abdul-Aziz bin Humain who is believed to be more moderate than his predecessor. This body runs the religious police and has been criticized for its harsh treatment of people on grounds of minor infractions. The 21-member Grand Ulama Commission, the influential body of religious scholars, will now have members from all branches of Sunni Islam, instead of the single Hanbali sect that is regarded as too strict and narrow in its interpretation of Islam. Whether such changes will placate critics is difficult to tell but there is no doubt that these changes have been forced by America.
The Americans have insisted that al-Qaeda is the direct product of the narrow literalist interpretation of the Hanbali sect of Islam. For once, the Americans may be right although their concern springs not from moderating the behavior of the Saudis, but only getting their own way with them.
As the last of the old guard Saudis are carried to their graves, the kingdom may enter turbulent times with ruthlessly ambitious young princes jockeying for power. Led by Bandar, the world can easily witness palace coups and assassinations in the coming years, if not months.