King Abdullah’s Illness and the Saudi Succession

, December 8, 2010

Vol. 10, No. 12     December 8, 2010

  • If King Abdullah dies, the Saudi succession will go smoothly, with Prince Nayif most likely becoming crown prince after current Crown Prince Sultan assumes the throne.
  • Nayif is a conservative, which does not bode well for reform, although King Abdullah, who is a reformer (on a Saudi scale), also had a reputation as a conservative.
  • The succession struggle will then focus on Nayif’s potential crown prince. The most likely candidates are King Abdullah’s son, Prince Mit’ib, and the son of King Faysal, Prince Khalid Al Faysal. Prince Salman, a full brother of Crown Prince Sultan, is a less likely candidate, although still a contender.
  • Although every ruler brings his own nuance, the West can be assured that Saudi Arabia will experience no major upheavals as a result of a succession to the throne.

The so far not-so-sensational revelations from the WikiLeaks cables (for instance, that Gulf state leaderships really do want the U.S. to take any action necessary to stop Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon)1 have overshadowed what is the most significant Saudi news story of the past several years: the sudden illness of King Abdullah and the implications for the Saudi succession and the stability of the Saudi state.

With a few hiccups along the way, all twentieth and twenty-first century successions in Saudi Arabia have gone smoothly because the Al Saud family values unity over everything else. No one wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. King Faysal (d. 1975) set the tone by balancing the succession between competing family factions, while rewarding key princes with lucrative positions in key ministries and the bureaucracy. These they could use to pad their pockets, build power bases, and spread resources to relatives and supporters

Abdullah Is Taken Ill

On November 12 the Saudi Arabian Royal Court announced2 that King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz (aged 87) had been ordered by his doctors to rest after being diagnosed with a herniated disc. An inkling of the king’s indisposition occurred earlier in the week on November 8, when the weekly cabinet meeting was chaired by Abdullah’s half-brother,3 Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz (aged 77). On November 13 the king also delegated Nayif to oversee the annual hajj ceremonies in his stead.4 At the time of the announcement, Crown Prince, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz was said to be on holiday in Morocco, where he had been since August. Prince Sultan (aged 86) is widely believed to be suffering from a serious illness.

The royal family went into high gear to assure its subjects that all was well and that the Al Saud were still firmly at the helm. A picture of Crown Prince Sultan in Morocco was shown, noting that he was engaging in official business.5 Then the king himself was shown using a cane6 and talking with reporters about his back.7

But something was clearly afoot. Apparently, the “back pain” was more serious than previously announced, and several events ensued in quick succession. On November 17 Abdullah named his son, Prince Mit’ib bin Abdullah (aged 57), to succeed him as Commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG).8 Mit’ib, who had long been expected to take over this position from Abdullah, was also made Minister of State, a cabinet-level position. SANG, the American-trained personal power base of Abdullah and his sons, is a 260,000-strong force that was slated to receive an upgrading of its minimal air assets as part of the $60 billion arms package for the kingdom which passed Congress in mid-November.9

On November 19 the palace admitted that the king was told to continue resting due to a new outbreak of pain,10 which was now accompanied by a “blood clot,” and on November 21 Saudi officials told the press that the king would fly to the United States on November 22 for treatment.11

Saudi media announced at the same time that Crown Prince Sultan would be returning from Morocco.12 Before he left for New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the wheelchair-bound king, seen with an IV tube sticking out of his hand, appointed Sultan to “administer the nation’s affairs” in his absence.13 The king underwent back surgery on November 24, and a few days later was reported to be convalescing well,14 according to statements by his half-brother Prince Nayif and the king’s son, Prince Mit’ib.

Meanwhile, on November 23 it was announced that Prince Salman bin Abd al-Aziz15 (aged 74), Governor of Riyadh Province and a full brother to Sultan and Nayif, had also returned from Morocco (with Sultan) and had “resumed his duties.”

To unseasoned observers, this royal dance may have seemed like an orderly state of affairs, but in reality it was a well-choreographed display of jockeying for power. As suited to a family that names a country after itself, the first priority was to assure a concerned populace that matters were under control. Abdullah prided himself on his transparency, but his subjects were probably made uneasy by just a bit too much information on his condition. Yet people were made to understand that all the key players were in place. The king was away, but the crown prince had returned, and Prince Salman had resumed his duties.

But just as the family as a whole wanted to assure a nervous public that nothing was amiss, each of the princes was keen to assert his position in the line of succession and thereby signal to his supporters and networks that they had nothing to worry about. Likewise, the West, particularly the United States, which always worries about Saudi stability, was an audience for this dance.

“Tribalistic” Politics: The Factionalization of the Saudi Royal Family

Saudi Arabia is a highly tribalistic society. The term “tribalistic” signifies that while tribes as discrete social units have dropped in importance with urbanization and modernization, tribal modes of behavior – most notably kinship-based behavior – play a key role in the social and political organization of the kingdom. When King Abd al-Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, bore over 30 sons from an untold number of wives, with so many sons it was inevitable that tribal-like factions would develop, coalescing either among sons who shared a mother (full brothers) or around the descendants of a particular son. These factions are numerous, but the most prominent are the following, all of which have, so to speak, some “skin in the game” when it comes to who rules Saudi Arabia:

  1. The sons of Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri: Full brothers, the offspring of Hassa bint Ahmdad al-Sudayri and King Abd al-Aziz and often identified by their filial sobriquet, Sudayri. The most prominent of these was King Fahd who led the faction until his death in 2005. Other key members are Sultan, Nayif, and Salman. Although they support each other against princes outside this large faction, each son himself forms, with his sons, another competing faction. The sons of Sultan and Nayif are particularly important. Sultan’s key sons are Bandar bin Sultan (born 1950), legendary former ambassador to the U.S., head of the National Security Council since 2005; and Khalid bin Sultan (born 1949), commander of forces in Operation Desert Storm, and Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation since 2001. Nayif’s key son is Muhammad bin Nayif (born 1959), who is Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs and the architect of the government’s counter-insurgency program.
  2. The sons of King Faysal (the Al Faysal): King Faysal had no full brothers. Three of his sons are important players: Sa’ud (born 1940), Minister of Foreign Affairs; Turki (born 1945), former head of intelligence and ex-ambassador to London and Washington; and Khalid (born 1940), Governor of Mecca.
  3. The sons of King Abdullah: Most prominent is Mit’ib (born 1953), Commander of the National Guard.

All those mentioned above are possible candidates for king, sooner or later. There may be others as well. The most prominent feature of these groups is that the sons most often go into the father’s line of work, personal fiefdoms handed down from father to son. They are groomed for office, and each faction forms a power center to distribute favors and influence. As the sons of founder King Abd al-Aziz grow older, the likelihood that one of their sons will be crown prince or king increases.

The internal bargaining that goes on between factions is a fairly opaque business to Saudi Arabians and Western outsiders. Caveats are in order when delving into this arcane process. The main goal is to preserve family unity by advancing those most qualified within the leading groups, while at the same time not leaving anyone too disgruntled.

Octogenarians and Septuagenarians: The Aging Line of Succession

The most prominent feature of the succession constellation in the wake of King Abdullah’s illness is that the current ruling bunch is quite old and infirm. Abdullah is in his mid-80s and is now hospitalized. Crown Prince Sultan is around the same age and has often spent huge amounts of time abroad recovering from a serious illness, widely rumored to be a form of cancer.

If Abdullah predeceases Crown Prince Sultan, the crown prince may face a challenge from other contenders, particularly Nayif, who might logically argue that the country should not be subject to a quick succession since Sultan was already in his 80s and not in good health. He would face opposition, of course, from Sultan and his sons, but not at the expense of family unity. Nayif might be mollified by an immediate announcement by Sultan appointing Nayif his crown prince.

In the event that Sultan dies before Abdullah, Prince Khalid bin Sultan might make a play for the position of crown prince, arguing that the position should go to Sultan’s son, as the father never received a chance to rule. In this case, Nayif, who is more senior in the family, would oppose him.

Nayif Gets in Line

In either case, most money is on Nayif reaching the coveted crown prince position. The move would accord with the principle of balance, since it could be argued that Sudayri Sultan never really got to rule very long or at all, so it would only be fair to replace him with his full brother Sudayri Nayif. But there is no doubt that all the main players are now lining up their pieces.

Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz has been Interior Minister for over 30 years. He is a conservative, and together with his powerful son, Muhammad, has led a fairly successful battle against al-Qaeda in the kingdom, using a tribalistic combination of carrot and stick to put down an insurgency which began in 2003. This achievement is to his credit, and while it has not endeared him to radicals, it has earned him the support of the Wahhabi religious establishment, which he has enlisted in his campaign.

In March 2009 he was appointed Second Deputy Prime Minister, a move widely assumed to position him next in line for the throne.

Nayif may disappoint those who seek a reforming leader. He is on record as opposing female municipal council officials,16 and indeed opposed elections to these councils. He seems to be a paranoid sort, who blamed the 9/11 tragedy on the Jews.17 But observers might recall that before his accession to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah was touted as conservative and anti-Western. In fact, he has proven the biggest reformer since King Faysal, albeit on a Saudi scale, which columnist Maureen Dowd has compared to “a snail on Ambien.”18

Still, it seems likely that Nayif will slow down reform even further. Westerners are not likely to be pleased with that.

Who Will Be Nayif’s Crown Prince?

Although candidates for Nayif’s crown prince are numerous, we should mention a prominent few. We have already mentioned Sultan’s son Khalid, who is well known in the West, although not considered much of a success. Nayif would likely be tempted to promote his son Muhammad, who has successfully countered the al-Qaeda insurgency and became popular when he survived an assassination attempt in August 2009 – by God’s will, the Saudis would say. Yet these are all Sudayris, as is Nayif’s full brother and Governor of Riyadh Province, Prince Salman.

In the name of balance and family harmony, it therefore appears probable that the Al Saud may prevail on Nayif to appoint a non-Sudayri. If the Sudayris prevail, however, Prince Salman, if he remains healthy19 (he had spinal surgery in the U.S. in August 2009), would be the leading candidate.

 

Khalid Al Faysal: The Intellectual Man of Letters

The two most prominent non-Sudayris who come to mind are Prince Khalid Al Faysal and Prince Mit’ib bin Abdallah. Both appear to be in good health (unlike Khalid’s brothers, Prince Sa’ud Al Faysal and Prince Turki Al Faysal).

In general, the Al Faysal (as was their father, King Faysal) are considered some of the more worldly members of the Al Saud. Many have long experience abroad, as well as in the more cosmopolitan region of the Hijaz, rather than the more traditional central area of Najd. Khalid has had long experience in government, ruling the province of Asir for many years, and, from 2007, governing the all-important province of Mecca. He is known to be intelligent, a painter, a poet, and a patron of the arts – and a personal friend of another crown prince, Charles of Wales. Prince Khalid has hosted Charles in Asir. Prince Khalid was featured in a WikiLeaks cable from November 8, 2006,20 in which a Western businessman describes the prince’s love of painting, including that of figures, a practice frowned upon by Wahhabi Islam. The prince was reported to hold a majlis, a sort of personalized town hall meeting, that was well-attended by people from all walks of life. Prince Khalid is widely believed to be respected in the family,21 many of whom might appreciate his combination of both modern and traditional sensibilities.

Prince Mit’ib bin Abdullah: Commander of His Father’s Army

Prince Mit’ib’s status comes from being his father’s right-hand man in the SANG. He is a graduate of Sandhurst and has been involved with SANG for most of his adult life. Since SANG has been trained by the Americans since the 1970s, it is likely that American military officials have some assessment of his abilities. Mit’ib, with his father’s help, will be presiding over the expansion of SANG, due to the new arms deal discussed above. The new positions created by the deal and the prestige of owning so much modern hardware will strengthen his position in the family and among the all-important tribes which make up SANG.

To sum up the issue of potential crown princes after Prince Nayif assumes the throne, if the Sudayris get their way and Prince Salman remains healthy, he might get the job. If they don’t, and the principle of balance between factions is maintained, Prince Khalid Al Faysal looks like the most probable winner.

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Notes

1. Although readers might be interested to know that during a March 15, 2009, meeting with White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan in Riyadh, King Abdullah suggested that released Guantanamo Bay detainees might be tracked via an implanted microchip. This was done with horses and falcons, the king said. Brennan replied, “Horses don’t have good lawyers.” See “U.S. Embassy Cables: Saudi King’s Advice for Barack Obama,” Guardian, November 28, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/198178

2. “King Abdullah Advised Rest – Saudi Royal Court,” Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, November 13, 2010, http://aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=1&id=23021

3. “Saudi King Suffers Herniated Disc,” AFP, November 12, 2010, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hK7wm4CBGfjgDhw4dj862YlpXflg?docId=CNG.cb80a1df49e6851ae06101076385e499.4d1

4. “Saudi King Delegates Deputy PM to Oversee Hajj,” Reuters, November 13, 2010, http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20101113/wl_nm/us_saudi_king_1

5. David Kenner, “The Saudi Succession Battle Spills into the Press,” Foreign Policy, November 16, 2010, http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/11/16/the_saudi_succession_battle_spills_into_the_press

6. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/files/fp_uploaded_images/101116_abdullah.JPG

7. “Saudi King ‘Fine’ after Slipped Disc,” AFP, November 17, 2010, http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20101117/wl_mideast_afp/saudipoliticsroyaltyhealth_20101117130640

8. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/17/AR2010111704919.html

9. “U.S.-Saudi Arms Deal on Track,” AFP, November 19, 2010,

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hEpfzlrQpi9X7GsuhZRzYLgNdLIg?docId=CNG.8c5f2dfbc93f860bb2d7e6b1038b6113.141

10. “Saudi King Has More Medical Tests, Told to Rest,” Reuters, November 19, 2010,

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20101119/wl_nm/us_saudi_king_health_1

11. “Saudi King Is Heading to U.S. for Medical Care,” Reuters, November 21, 2010,

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/world/middleeast/22saudi.html

12. Ibid.

13. “Saudi King Arrives in U.S. for Medical Tests,”

AP, November 23, 2010,

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5igtxekkWc6ACqkUVS3r2agSYMb8A?docId=5c5cbcb988784974b346d40094da03f4

14. Nawwaf Afit, “King Recuperating after Surgery: Mit’eb,” Saudi Gazette, November 28, 2010,

http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentID=2010112988212

15. “Prince Salman Resumes Duties at Governorate,” Arab News (Saudi Arabia), November 23, 2010,

http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article199149.ece

16. “Prince Nayef One of Most Powerful Saudi Princes,” Reuters, November 21, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6AK17R20101121

17. Ibid.

18. Maureen Dowd, “A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia,” Vanity Fair, August 2010, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/08/maureen-dowd-201008

19. Asma Alsharif , “Saudi King to Seek Medical Treatment in U.S.,” Reuters, November 21, 2010,

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20101121/wl_nm/us_saudi_king

20. http://cablegate.wikileaks.org/cable/2006/11/06JEDDAH700.html

21. Simon Henderson, “Bandar Is Back,” Foreign Policy, October 21, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/10/21/bandar_is_back?page=0,1

 

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Joshua Teitelbaum, Ph.D., is Principal Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He holds research positions at the GLORIA Center, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and visiting positions at the Hoover Institution and the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, both at Stanford University.

 

About Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum

Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum is Senior Research Fellow, Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tel Aviv University, and Rosenbloom Israeli Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and W. Glenn Campbell and Rita Ricardo-Campbell National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford University.