The House of Saud has arrived at a critical moment in its history: how to safely hand over power to the next generation without upsetting the applecart. It is not an easy task.
What do you do when your father’s nocturnal activities create problems of succession for you? ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud could not have imagined a day would come when his children will have to grapple with a problem he unintentionally created. After all, he sired 46 sons, of whom 36 survived beyond childhood, and seven daughters from a total of 23 wives. It seems incredible that he still had time for mass production when he was busy raiding and plundering trade and pilgrims’ caravans during the day and night.
The surviving sons of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz are now in advanced age. The youngest, Prince Muqrin, is nearly 70. Others are either too old, or too sick to be of any use, governing that is. Muqrin’s senior brother Abdullah is 90 and barely alive even if he is king, while Crown Prince Salman is 77 or 78. Both Abdullah and Salman also suffer from multiple ailments. This is what prompted Abdullah to appoint Muqrin as deputy crown prince on March 27. This may have temporarily delayed one problem but has perhaps accentuated several others. Abdullah’s failing health necessitates his walking around with an oxygen tube in his nose.
By appointing a deputy crown prince, Abdullah has cast a no-confidence vote in Salman’s health and survival. In fact, it is almost a hint that Salman will precede him, like Sultan and Nayef, to the grave. Salman could not be happy with this turn of events. Further, Muqrin’s appointment was not endorsed at a meeting of the Hay’at al-Bay‘ah (Allegiance Council) created by King Abdullah in October 2006. The Council is made up of the sons of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (or his grandsons in certain cases) and two members appointed by the king, one of whom is his own son and the other is a son of the crown prince.
The Allegiance Council was established to smooth the transition of power to the next generation of Saudi royals. By appointing a deputy crown prince, Abdullah has circumvented the Council as well as the right of the crown prince who upon becoming king when the ruling monarch (in this case Abdullah) dies would have appointed one. The way it was set up to function was that the new king would nominate up to three candidates for the position of crown prince and the Allegiance Council would select one of them.
The rules stipulate — as if the ruling family abides by any — that if the Council were to reject all of the king’s nominees, it has the authority to nominate its own candidate. Now the ball would be in the king’s court (no pun intended!). He could reject the Council’s choice but this would return the issue back to the Council which must now vote on a candidate. The winner of the vote would then become crown prince. All this must be accomplished within 30 days of the crowning of the new king.
When Abdullah appointed Muqrin as deputy crown prince at the end of March, the statement also said that 75% of the Allegiance Council members were in favour of this choice and that it could not be reversed by anyone. An inside source, however, has confirmed that no meeting of the Council was convened; Abdullah merely solicited members’ opinions individually. How much credence can there be about the 75% support? And why did Abdullah circumvent the mechanism he himself had set up for succession that was supposed to come into play after his death? Palace insiders have tried to explain that he wanted to prevent a messy succession battle. It certainly points to palace intrigue and perhaps impatience by the next generation of Saudi “royals” to get a crack at running the country.
It is also interesting to note that Muqrin was removed from the post of chief of Saudi intelligence last July and replaced by Bandar bin Sultan. His removal was seen as a downgrading but he has just been elevated to the position of deputy crown prince and almost certainly future king among ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud’s sons, the last of this generation. Also worthy of note is that Bandar himself was removed as intelligence chief on April 15 even though the official announcement said it was at his “request.” Bandar had been away from the Kingdom for several months, apparently recuperating in Morocco.
Should Muqrin outlive Abdullah and Salman — by no means a certainty because life and death are in the hands of Allah (swt) and also because Abdullah has already dispatched two crown princes, 86-year-old cancer-ridden Sultan and 78-year-old apparently healthy looking Nayef to their graves — he would have the difficult task of handing over power to the next generation from among Ibn Saud’s grandsons. This is an unenviable task; whoever he chooses would almost certainly face opposition from other ruthlessly ambitious contenders. It could be a messy affair. Muqrin may wish he were not handed this hot potato.
Saudi commentators close to the palace have tried to spin the fast-paced developments by saying the royal family has always worked through consensus. Perhaps but this ignores two fundamental points. First, consensus in the past was the direct result of the younger generation deferring to the older generation of uncles and they were not in the running for the top spot. Second, in the next round of succession, competition would be between equals. They all know that whoever gets the nod to become king will grab the lion’s share of power and resources. Rule will pass to that individual’s family. When there is so much at stake, politeness is the first thing out the window. History is replete with examples of the dictum, kingship knows no kinship.
There are a number of ambitious individuals waiting in the wings. One can name several of them. Topping the list is Muhammad bin Nayef, the current interior minister. He is most suitably placed to become the future king because he is the virtual ruler of the Kingdom even now by controlling almost all major internal power nodes. Equally ambitious and utterly ruthless is Bandar bin Sultan, the just-dismissed intelligence chief. His removal from this important post may be a ploy to get more time to plot his moves. He is also very tight with the American neocons, especially the Zionists on whose support he is counting to grab the kingdom’s top spot. Will he succeed is a trillion dollar question because despite all his experience, cunning and ruthlessness, he has been a roaring failure in Syria and also because he is the illegitimate son of the late Sultan, his mother being an African concubine. Saudi Arabia is still a deeply racist society, Islam having had little effect on routing out the jahili aspects so prevalent among the bedouins from Najd.
Another strong contender is Miteb bin Abdullah who was appointed Commander of National Guard by his father. A royal decree issued by the king on April 16, 2014 turned the National Guard into a ministry thus elevating his son Miteb to the rank of minister. This gives him a place at the decision-making table and lines him up for possible elevation as crown prince by Muqrin. Miteb’s elevation, however, is not assured since Bandar had been plotting behind the scenes against Salman and lobbying for Muqrin’s promotion. Has Bandar lined up his ducks carefully? Muqrin and Bandar are both air force pilots with training in the UK and US. Will their air force camaraderie work in Bandar’s favour?
Regardless of who becomes the future king, he (no shes are in the running!) will face daunting challenges. The region is in turmoil. Saudi Arabia is embroiled in multiple crises: Syria, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Turkey, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon and the ever-present challenges from a restive population at home that want some relief from economic deprivation and more say in the affairs of state. Discontent has been brewing. Despite the king’s promulgation of a draconian decree banning any calls for reform or exposure of corruption, the people now appear to be fearless. They have posted messages demanding their rights on YouTube together with their ID cards to show they are not afraid. Millions of Saudis have visited these sites and expressed support. The phenomenon is growing and it may be difficult for the regime to contain it. The movement has mushroomed into a flood.
King Abdullah’s rapid changes and/or elevation of individuals to key positions reflect a nervousness that was not evident before. He knows his time is running out — how much longer can he live when he is already 90 — but he is not certain whether the next generation would be able to work together especially in view of the rising demands of a restless population as well as discontent among some segments of the ‘ulama (many of them also in jail). The regional environment is also not favourably disposed toward the Saudis. The Americans have tired of the Saudis and are losing interest.
It is a bad time to be a Saudi ruler. Things are only going to get worse and there is little hope they will get better. We can look forward to a ringside view of the demise of one of most decrepit monarchies that should never have been in power in the holy land of the Arabian Peninsula in the first place.