By Qasim A. Moini
Oct. 30, 2011
WITH the recent death of Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the appointment of his full brother Nayef as the new heir, the debate about succession to the Saudi throne has been reignited.
While numerous kings have come and gone in the oil-rich desert kingdom since its foundation in 1932, this time there appears to be a sense of urgency to formalise the process of succession as both King Abdullah (in his late 80s) and Prince Nayef (in his late 70s) are of an advanced age and not enjoying the best of health. Pictures of Abdullah attending Sultan’s funeral showed a frail, pale-looking king wearing a surgical mask.
There are various reasons why the royal politics of this kingdom matter for the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia sits on between 20-25 per cent of the world’s oil while it is also termed the biggest economy in the Middle East, as well as a key American ally in the region.
From the Muslim world’s point of view, the fact that Makkah and Madina, Islam’s two holiest sites, are located within Saudi Arabia give the country additional prestige. Thirdly, from the Pakistani perspective, Saudi Arabia has for long — officially and unofficially — played a major role in this country’s affairs, from funding madrasas to offering economic bailouts to dabbling in Pakistani politics.
For all these reasons policymakers and governments across the globe will continue to watch developments in Saudi Arabia very carefully.
Before discussing the present circumstances, it would be helpful to briefly mention the historical trends of Saudi succession. The House of Saud was effectively founded by a central Arabian chieftain called Mohammad bin Saud in the 18th century. This was the man who gave refuge to cleric Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab, thus cementing the Saudi-Wahhabi relationship which has endured for over two-and-a-half centuries. According to this pact the Al Saud have been the lords temporal, while the Aal As Shaikh, or descendents of Ibn Abdul Wahhab, have been the lords spiritual.
Modern Saudi Arabia is actually the third Saudi state in history. Internecine rivalries marked the first two Saudi states, yet the modern country, founded by King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, popularly known as Ibn Saud, has been a much more stable entity than its predecessors.
As far as succession goes, Ibn Saud appointed his son Saud crown prince while declaring another son, Faisal, as second in line (all kings of Saudi Arabia following Ibn Saud’s demise have been his sons. In fact, the Saudi basic law states that only sons of Ibn Saud and their descendents can rule). However, Saud, widely seen as incompetent, was deposed by Faisal in 1964, who was assassinated by an estranged nephew in 1975. Khalid, the next king, a quiet man with no real interest in governance, was followed by Fahd. Fahd’s death in 2005 yielded the way for Abdullah, the current ruler. All these were largely orderly transitions, but not without palace intrigues and jockeying for power between the numerous members of the Al Saud clan. There are no exact numbers but it is said Ibn Saud had around 40 sons. Overall, the House of Saud is said to have thousands of members (Saudi scholar Mai Yamani puts the number at 22,000). This creates a complex web of family branches and sub-branches all with varying amounts of say on who should be king.
Today, Ibn Saud’s remaining sons are either ageing — most in their 70s and 80s — infirm or uninterested in governance. This puts the spotlight on the grandsons of Ibn Saud, one of whom might get to rule within years as nature takes its course. This generational shift in the Al Saud hierarchy may herald socioeconomic and political reform, but choosing a grandson will be an incredibly Byzantine process, considering the number of contenders and the opaqueness of Saudi politics.
King Abdullah created the Allegiance Council, a conclave consisting of the remaining sons and leading grandsons of Ibn Saud, in 2006 to ensure a smooth transition to power.
The council seems to have done its job with the confirmation of Nayef as crown prince, but perhaps the real test will come when the council has to decide the second in line. As indicated earlier, this might happen sooner rather than later.
In his analytical paper After King Abdullah, scholar Simon Henderson has noted that factors determining a future Saudi sovereign include age, being a ‘good Muslim’, having a Saudi mother, experience as well as popularity. The support of factions within the Al Saud must also be considered. The Sudairis, seven full brothers born to Ibn Saud’s ‘favourite’ wife, are by far the most powerful bloc; former king Fahd was a Sudairi, as was Sultan. Nayef and Salman, the Riyadh governor, also belong to this clan. In fact, many believe that Abdullah created the Allegiance Council to counter Sudairi influence.
There are multiple reasons why the Al Saud family must show the world as well as its own citizens that succession will be an orderly affair in future and jockeying for the throne will not result in instability in this highly tribal, clan-based society. Firstly, there is turbulence on the kingdom’s borders. Yemen is in turmoil while there have been calls for the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain. The situation in Iraq is also uncertain, while across the Gulf tensions with Iran have risen.
Within the kingdom there is increasing yearning for change with calls ranging from demands for jobs to greater rights for women to more public say in governance as well as disaffection in parts of the Shia-majority Eastern Province from where most of the oil flows. If Nayef becomes king, reform will likely be stunted as he is opposed to change at home. At the same time, the prince is considered a hawk in foreign policy matters. Considering the myriad challenges that Saudi Arabia faces, infusing young blood into the ruling hierarchy and responding to the public’s wishes for change might be essential if the house that Ibn Saud built is to survive.
The writer is a member of staff.