OPEC kingpin must set succession process in motion after Prince Sultan’s demise
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, is waiting
for a successor to the crown prince as the ruling family gathers for prayers
after the death of Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The crown prince’s death on Oct 22 has set in motion “a
challenging moment for Saudi Arabia,” Tarik Yousef, a fellow at the
Washington-based Brookings Institute, said in an interview in Jordan. “It’s
time to address succession questions and react quickly. Observers are anxious
about a political vacuum.”
Prince Nayef, born in 1934, is the most likely royal for the
crown prince role among other elderly candidates from the Al Saud family. King
Abdullah, who is 87, left a hospital in Riyadh last week after undergoing
surgery to relieve back pain. He travelled to the US in November for three
months of medical care.
The death of Sultan comes after Saudi Arabia, which has the
biggest economy in the Arab world, announced $130bn in social and housing
spending after youth-driven uprisings toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and
Libya this year. It has also increased oil supply to help meet rising demand
after exports from Libya collapsed during the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.
The Saudis will want to convey a “message of continuity in
terms of their economic policies, and reiterate their commitment to oil market
stability at a time of global uncertainty and OPEC divisions,” Jarmo Kotilaine,
chief economist at Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank, said in a telephone
interview. “There are certain policies that they have agreed on over the last
few years and months, and they won’t change this.”
Saudi state television announced the death of Sultan, who is
also minister of defense and aviation, then began playing verses from the
Koran, as is the custom. The prince was born in Riyadh in 1928, according to
the Saudi Embassy in Washington, and was heir apparent to the throne. He will
be buried in an unmarked grave, as stipulated by the Sunni Wahabbi version of
Sultan died “outside the kingdom after suffering an
illness,” the Royal Court said in a statement posted on the official Saudi
Press Agency website. “Prayer will be held at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Mosque in
Riyadh after Asr prayer on Tuesday.”
US President Barack Obama called King Abdullah to express
his condolences and the White House announced that Vice President Joe Biden
will lead an American delegation to Riyadh during the mourning period.
During Sultan’s five decades as defense minister, Saudi
Arabia relied on the US for military protection in return for stable oil supplies.
The kingdom spent $11.2bn on US weapons between 2005 and 2008, making it the
biggest foreign buyer of US arms during the period, according to the
Congressional Research Service in Washington.
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Six kings have ruled Saudi Arabia since it was established
in 1932. When King Fahd died in 2005 after ruling the kingdom for 23 years, the
Royal Court announced the same day that Abdullah would become the monarch. The
1992 basic law stipulates that the king must be a son or grandson of the
scenario has been set in motion,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the
Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said in a phone
interview from Dubai. “It’s pretty obvious, based on what we know, that the
next crown prince will be Nayef because of his credentials. I expect the
transition to be smooth.”
Nayef is the next-most senior member of the royal family
after Sultan, according to Hani Sabra, Middle East and Africa analyst at the
New York-based Eurasia Group. Nayef has controlled the Interior Ministry since
King Abdullah, who was born in 1924, changed the kingdom’s
succession rules in 2007 to give an appointed commission of princes, called the
Allegiance Council, more power to select a new ruler. The council would be
responsible for naming a crown prince, who will then be in line as the new
“There is a possibility, and I don’t know how possible, that
the king may decide to enact the Allegiance Council,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a
political science professor at King Saud University. “The process will be
delayed if the king goes with this. With oil markets and the turmoil in the
Middle East, they don’t want to give an impression of uncertainty.”
The council consists of appointed male descendants of the
kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, the SPA said. In March 2009, Abdullah
appointed Nayef as second deputy prime minister, a role that makes him the most
senior Saudi royal in the absence of the king and the crown prince.
The decree aims to give greater transparency to the royal
family’s decision-making process, which in the past was done through
consensus-building among princes. Abdullah’s son, Prince Abdul Aziz bin
Abdullah, is the kingdom’s deputy foreign minister, while Sultan’s son, Prince
Khaled, is the deputy defense minister. Nayef’s son, Prince Mohammad, is the
assistant interior minister.
Sultan spent much of the period between 2008 and 2011 out of
the country to receive medical care for an undisclosed illness. He traveled to
New York in June for a “private holiday” that included medical tests, though
the Saudi government didn’t release details about his health, according to the
SPA. Time magazine reported in 2005 that he had colon cancer.
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Sultan was named crown prince that year following the death
of his brother, King Fahd. Sultan was appointed minister of defense and
aviation in 1963, oversaw the expansion and modernization of the Saudi military
into a force that participated in the US-led war to oust Iraqi forces from
Kuwait in 1991. Saudi troops also fought Houthi rebels along the nation’s
southern border with Yemen in a three-month battle that ended in February 2010.
The US Defense Department told Congress in October 2010 that
it wants to sell as much as $60 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia. US policy
makers want the proposed sale to include F- 15 fighter jets, attack
helicopters, and satellite-guided smart bombs to counter Iranian military
ambitions in the Persia Gulf and regional extremists.
“King Abdullah will use the crown prince’s passing as an
opportunity to reform the Ministry of Defense and Aviation,” Danny Sebright,
vice president of the New York-based Cohen Group, said in an interview in Jordan.
“What we will see is a process over the next number of weeks, months where
there will be some leadership changes at the ministry.” The group was formed by
former US Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen.
Sultan was educated in religion, culture and statecraft at
the royal court of his father, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. His career in public
service began in 1947, when he was appointed governor of Riyadh, whose main
task is resolving disputes among the 7,000 members of the royal family. Five
years later, he became the kingdom’s first minister of agriculture.