Vol. 5, No. 2 August 3, 2005
King Fahd de facto governed Saudi Arabia since the crowning of the sickly King Khalid in 1975 – until 1995 when Fahd himself suffered a debilitating stroke. Abdallah, Fahd’s successor, is a conservative ascetic who was never considered corrupt by the population, unlike other members of the al-Saud family.
Abdallah succeeded in winning the support of the establishment religious scholars, despite his relationship with “infidel” America and limited attempts at reform, for his all-out assault against hard-line Wahhabis and their Saudi al-Qaeda disciples.
While Abdallah has rejected demands by younger Western-educated princes, the intelligentsia, and the middle class for faster reform, this group has grudgingly supported his claim for power against his reactionary Sudairi half-brothers and their conservative camp.
Having avoided a struggle for power within the royal family by appointing Prince Sultan as his crown prince (and possibly his powerful and ultra-conservative brother, Na’if, the minister of interior, to be eventually second-in-line of succession), the ascension of Abdallah should prevent instability in the world’s largest oil producer and is likely to further consolidate cooperation between Riyadh and Washington.
On August 1, 2005, Iyad Madani, Saudi Arabia’s information minister, announced that 83-year-old King Fahd had passed away and that Crown Prince Abdallah (81) had succeeded him as king of Saudi Arabia. Israeli intelligence sources had reported in mid-July that King Fahd was in a coma and was being kept alive artificially, or that he was already dead. Immediately upon his ascension to the throne, King Abdallah appointed Prince Sultan, his half-brother and one of the late King Fahd’s full brothers from a Sudairi mother, and second-in-line of succession, as his crown prince.
Despite claims that Fahd had ruled Saudi Arabia from 1982 (when he became king following the death of his half-brother, King Khalid), Fahd de facto governed Saudi Arabia since the crowning of the sickly King Khalid in 1975. Considered a reformer and pro-American, unlike his reactionary six Sudairi brothers (the most important of whom are Sultan, the minister of defense, Na’if, the minister of interior, and Salman, the governor of Riyadh), Fahd in 1990 invited U.S. forces to protect Saudi Arabia, despite the Sudairi brothers’ objections.
The Sudairis, however, managed to consolidate their power in the kingdom over the twenty years of King Fahd’s rule until 1995, when he suffered a debilitating stroke. Ever since, Saudi Arabia has been actually ruled by his conservative half-brother, Crown Prince Abdallah, who surprisingly changed his position, becoming strongly pro-American and somewhat reformist, but who had to share power with his Sudairi half-brothers. Thus, on several occasions, the Sudairi-led camp in the royal family blocked Abdallah’s pro-American political and oil policies.
Since 1995, Abdallah has succeeded in expanding his own power base by allying himself with the al-Faysal, the offspring of the late King Faysal (who ruled from 1964 to 1975), including the foreign minister, Saud al-Faysal, and his full brother, Khalid, the governor of the kingdom’s southeastern “Yemeni” provinces, as well as their half-brother, Turki, who had served as head of Saudi intelligence until a few years ago. Turki’s failure to control al-Qaeda led to his resignation in 2001. In 2003, he was appointed ambassador to the UK (where he occasionally expressed strong anti-Israeli, if not anti-Jewish, positions). At the end of July 2005, Turki replaced his cousin, Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, as ambassador to the U.S.
Prince Bandar is considered an ally of King Abdallah, although he is a son of the Sudairi Crown Prince Sultan. Bandar is Sultan’s estranged son by an African concubine, and the relations between the two have always been cold. In Washington, Bandar successfully served his country’s interests for about twenty years. Since 1995, and possibly even earlier, Bandar was considered Abdallah’s “man” in Washington, especially during the two Bush administrations. It had been claimed that Bandar resigned his position not only due to ill health (“physical exhaustion”), but even more so to be in a position to serve Abdallah in Riyadh upon his ascension to power, especially as a conduit for his foreign relations (once King Fahd’s state of health became known). Indeed, Bandar’s right-hand man in Washington, the exceptionally bright Adel al-Jubair, has been Abdallah’s senior advisor on foreign policy and his representative in dealing with the Bush administration since 2002.
Abdallah is an ascetic and conservative senior prince who was never considered corrupt by the population, unlike other members of the al-Saud. He became crown prince in 1982 and managed to preserve his control of the national guard after a bitter struggle with the Sudairi camp. He won the support of the religious establishment and yet blocked their growing pressure since the early 1980s to gain a greater share of policy formulation in the al-Saud government. Abdallah succeeded in winning the support of the establishment ulama (religious scholars), despite his relationship with “infidel” America and limited attempts at reform, for his all-out assault against hard-line Wahhabis and their Saudi al-Qaeda disciples.
As crown prince, Abdallah shared power with the senior al-Saud members, yet he rejected demands by younger Western-educated princes, the intelligentsia, and the middle class for faster reform and a change in the regime. However, he managed to avoid alienating this entire group, who grudgingly joined his camp and supported his claim for power against his reactionary Sudairi half-brothers and their conservative camp.
By immediately appointing Prince Sultan as his crown prince, King Abdallah managed to avoid a protracted struggle for power, which would have split the royal family and eroded its somewhat reduced power base. This is of special importance in a period when the al-Saud are engaged in an all-out attempt to uproot Saudi al-Qaeda and its militant offshoot in the kingdom and nearby region. It is also essential to maintain the royal family’s unity at a time when U.S. credibility is seriously being undermined in the Middle East and elsewhere as a result of Washington’s inability to overcome the insurgency in Iraq, which is bringing the country to the brink of civil war and could produce an alliance between the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and Teheran. In fact, this was to be a major topic for discussion at the Arab summit hurriedly organized by Egypt that was to convene in Sharm al-Sheikh in Sinai, but was postponed due to King Fahd’s death.
Under Crown Prince Abdallah, Saudi Arabia further consolidated its relations with the United States and cooperated with Washington concerning Middle Eastern politics and, even more so, on stabilizing the oil market and prices. Reports coming out of Saudi Arabia today indicate that the kingdom’s oil production and exportation are continuing at the same record rate. Having avoided a struggle for power within the royal family by appointing Prince Sultan as his crown prince (and possibly his powerful and ultra-conservative brother, Na’if, the minister of interior, to be eventually second-in-line of succession), the ascension of Abdallah to the Saudi monarchy should prevent instability in the world’s largest oil producer and in the oil market. If anything, the crowning of Abdallah is likely to further consolidate the cooperation between Riyadh and Washington regarding the oil market and regional politics.
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Mordechai Abir is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor (Emeritus) of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books include Saudi Arabia: Society, Government and the Gulf Crises (1993) and Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era: Regime and Elites: Conflict and Collaboration (1988).