Inter Press Network

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Facing the Issue of Succession in Saudi Arabia

Drafted By: Dr. P.R. Kumaraswamy

The smooth transition of power in Saudi Arabia following the death of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz is unlikely to hide the severe challenges facing the new ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. He will have to navigate a host of problems facing the oil-rich kingdom such as relations with the United States, uncertainties following the surprise election of Mohammed Ahmadinejad as the new president of Iran, galloping oil prices, pressures for reform and growing international terrorism.

However, the real challenges facing Abdullah are domestic and will test his ability to provide decisive leadership to Saudi Arabia. With royal members estimated at more than 5,000 princes and perhaps an equal number of disenfranchised princesses, the House of Saud is in the throws of a host of crises.

Aging Rulers

In recent years, a number of Middle Eastern countries have witnessed a change of leaders and the succession invariably meant the ushering in of second-generation leadership; in countries such as Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and Morocco, younger leaders have ascended the thrown. Even in the case of Syria, the death of President Hafez al-Assad led to his son Bashar taking over office. Despite the obvious drawbacks, these leaders represent a younger generation with new aspirations.

Saudi Arabia is not part of this pattern. Succession is still restricted to the sons of its founder King Abdul Aziz al-Saud. Since the founding of the modern Saudi Arabia in 1932, the desert kingdom has had only six rulers; namely Abdul Aziz (1932-53) and his sons Saud (1953-64), Faisal (1964-75), Khalid (1975-82), Fahd (1982-2005) and Abdullah (2005-present).

As a result, each new king is no younger than the earlier one. For example, King Abdullah as well as Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz are between 75 and 90 years of age. At this rate, keeping succession among the sons of the founder will inevitably mean shorter reigns and frequent successions.

Perhaps anticipating this problem, in 1992 King Fahd introduced the basic laws, which among other things proclaimed: "Rulers of the country shall be amongst the sons of the founder and their descendants. The most upright among them shall receive allegiance…" In light of this statement, it may be necessary to implement radical changes in the succession order. For instance, once succession passes over to the grandchildren of founder King Abdul Aziz, who among the hundreds of third-generation princes would be found able and acceptable?

Power Struggle

The internal power struggle within the al-Saud family will likely be shaped by the so-called Sudairi Seven (now six following the death of King Fahd). These six surviving sons of King Abdul Aziz share the same mother and have amassed considerable power and influence. The group includes powerful princes like Sultan, Nayif and Salman. Enjoying and enlisting their unqualified support will be vital for King Abdullah to pursue any part of his agenda. Despite the debilitating stroke King Fahd suffered in 1995, for a decade King Abdullah looked after the day-to-day running of the country as a crown prince. One might even argue that if it were not for the Sudairi factor, King Fahd might have been removed or forced to abdicate in favor of King Abdullah.

Moreover, all three sons of the new king who are politically active have been accommodated in the National Guard headed by King Abdullah. This is perhaps an indication of his limited power base within the family. Therefore, King Abdullah will have to expand his support base by enlisting the support of his other half-brothers and other influential members of the royal family. Any meaningful political reform in Saudi Arabia will have to be within the al-Saud family. Keeping the line of succession among the sons of founder King Abdul Aziz has been difficult.

Next in Line?

Moreover, since 1975, the Saudi monarch has appointed a second deputy prime minister, thereby settling the third prince in line of succession. Upon ascending to the throne, King Khalid named Fahd as crown prince and Abdullah as second deputy prime minister. Following this tradition, in 1982 King Fahd named Prince Sultan as the second deputy prime minister. While King Abdullah followed this pattern and named Prince Sultan as crown prince, he avoided immediately naming anyone to be third in line of succession.

Prince Salman, the younger brother of Prince Sultan, is seen by many as a likely candidate for the number three position. As a member of the Sudairi Seven, he enjoys considerable political clout. But his nomination as the second deputy prime minister would mean overlooking the claims of other powerful princes like Housing Minister Mit'ab bin Abdul Aziz and Interior Minister Nayif bin Abdul Aziz. Moreover, Prince Salman is not young either; he was born in 1936.

Equally Aging Cabinet

In the case of Saudi Arabia, not only are the rulers aging but the same individuals have held key posts in the government for decades. King Abdullah headed the National Guard since 1963 while Prince Sultan, the new crown prince, has been the defense minister since 1962. Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal was first appointed to the position in 1975. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who has recently relinquished his post as Saudi ambassador in Washington, held that position since 1983. His successor, Prince Turki bin Faisal, headed the Saudi intelligence agency between the years of 1978 and 2001.

Similarly, Interior Minister Nayif has been in office since 1975. Deputies in the ministries of defense and interior have been holding their positions for more than two decades. Prince Salman, seen by some as a possible future king, has been the governor of Riyadh since 1962. In short, the consensus and continuity have been stretched to the limits by members of the royal family.

Under the Saudi system, the king also serves as the prime minister. This is likely to create new problems for the rulers. King Abdullah also holds the post of commander of the powerful National Guard, a position he has held since 1962. This has been his principal powerbase within the ruling family. Will he continue to hold onto this position or elevate his Sandhurst-educated son Mit'ab bin Abdullah, who was appointed deputy commander of the National Guard in 1984?

The same question can be asked about new Crown Prince Sultan. Will he continue to be the defense minister or retire in favor of his equally aging younger brother Abdul Rahman, who has been his deputy since 1983?

Pressures for Reform

It is undeniable that there is strong domestic pressure for reform and accountability. The introduction of the nominated consultative council, or Majlis al-Shura, by King Fahd in 1992 was a partial concession to demands for reforms. The national dialogue pursued by King Abdullah in the past few years and his periodic meetings with different segments of the population, and the introduction of local elections early this year were clear indications that the Saudi monarchy has been forced to reform itself. However, as crown prince, Abdullah's room to maneuver was limited and there were suggestions that other princes impeded his ability to pursue the reform process actively.

The assumption of full sovereign powers following the death of King Fahd is unlikely to alter the situation radically since King Abdullah will still have to navigate carefully. His drive for reform will require the consent and support of other powerful princes and this in turn will mean that Abdullah will have to accommodate their demands for key positions.

Likewise, introduction of political reforms similar to those experimented in neighboring states such as Kuwait and Bahrain will not be easy. Principle opposition in Saudi Arabia emanates not from the liberal segments of the population but from the conservative elements who feel that the al-Saud family has deviated from Islam and the puritanical traditions of Wahhabism, an extremist sect within Sunni Islam. For the critics, the ruling monarch is not Islamic enough; therefore, Abdullah will not be able to push forward any political reforms that would alienate the conservative support base.

In the Saudi context, reforms would also mean fighting corruption within the royal household. Despite the simplicity of the funeral and unmarked grave, late King Fahd amassed huge personal wealth estimated to be around US$20-30 billion. The same can be said about Prince Sultan who, as defense minister, presided over one of the most expensive military modernization programs. In contrast to Abdullah's pious and simple lifestyle, the ostentatious lifestyle of many princes -- such as the former ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar -- has attracted considerable attention and criticism both within and outside the country. Reforms aimed at transparency would mean greater accountability of the princes and curtailing their tendencies to mass personal fortunes.


Given the situation, issues of foreign policy are unlikely to be the top priority for Abdullah's Saudi Arabia. Domestic stability, especially the post-Fahd political order, will be high on the agenda. However, despite his popularity among the population and the current prevailing optimism, Abdullah is literally racing against time since his age is working against him. While the challenges before him are truly monumental, the window of opportunity is extremely short. Unlike his predecessors, Abdullah is unlikely to benefit from his appointed crown prince since Sultan suffers from a host of health problems.

Given his popularity and personal reputation, Abdullah enjoys the unique advantage of bringing about radical changes, especially within the royal family, and the ability to bring about an orderly transfer of succession to the next generation. Even if he cannot benefit from such changes, he will have to introduce some radical changes in the government since they will be vital for the long-term stability of Saudi Arabia. He will have to retire some of the aging princes who have been holding the same offices for decades. Without such changes, the al-Saud family will be unable to address a number of challenges facing the country.

The mishandling of the situation or the alienation of powerful princes will undermine Abdullah's ability to prepare the country for the future. At the same time, however, laws of nature will mean that King Abdullah has a much shorter window of opportunity than all of his predecessors. Far reaching structural changes, therefore, will have to come in weeks and months rather than in years and decades.