By John R. Bradley
Saudi expert John R. Bradley explores the potentially destabilising impact of King Fahd’s death on the kingdom’s royal family.
Walking the hard road of succession|~|1-KING-FAHD-FEATURE-PIC-200.jpg|~||~|The first clear sign that an announcement of King Fahd’s death was imminent came with the news, a week earlier, that Prince Bandar, a nephew of the king, had resigned as ambassador to Washington, a post he had held for 22 years.
He replacement was immediately named as Prince Turki Al Faisal, a brother of foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal. Prince Bandar himself had officially denied the rumour of his resignation just days earlier. But Prince Saud, who just happens to be King Abdullah’s closest political ally, confirmed it in a statement nevertheless.
The Washington shift was an opening shot in a succession battle that, while superficially smooth, inevitably pits rival princes from various competing branches of the Saudi ruling family against one another.
The new king must try to wrest control over the extended ruling family by appointing his supporters — mainly from the Al Faisal branch of the royal family, who are traditionally known to be liberal-minded — to key positions. While the king’s word is final, even in an absolute monarchy the key to survival is building consensus through consultation.
The relationship between the new king and the new Washington ambassador, Prince Turki, therefore illustrates how personal relationships among princes will remain crucial to the kingdom’s future — and how personal rivalries may prove destabilising.
Arab press reports, for instance, say Prince Bandar resigned because of friction with King Abdullah, who increasingly relied instead on Adel Al Jubair, his private counselor in Washington, to communicate with the US government.
Yet another complication: Prince Bandar is the son of defence minister Prince Sultan, who was made Crown Prince on the announcement of King Fahd’s death. Prince Sultan is one of six powerful full brothers of the late king — the others include Riyadh governor Prince Salman and interior minsiter Prince Naif — who represent King Abdullah’s rivals.
Ultra-conservative and yet at the same time said to be self-indulgent, they are also said to distrust King Abdullah, mainly because of his talk of the need for an anti-corruption drive.
Nevertheless, despite the messy infighting, in many ways the succession could not have come at a better time, analysts tell Arabian Business. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia is flush with oil money, and King Abdullah recently completed a successful meeting with US president George W. Bush.
“The April meeting at Crawford between Abdullah and president Bush showed a good working relationship at the highest level. The transition of power from Fahd to Abdullah will not change this,’’ predicts Dr. Rachel Bronson, the head of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
King Abdullah, moreover, is the first king since his half-brother Faisal, who ruled from 1964 to 1975, to be genuinely popular among the Saudi masses. He has positioned himself as a strong Muslim leader, shunning the decadance and indulgence that has made some other members of his large family infamous, while trying to unite the kingdom’s warring factions in the name of a more moderate Islam.
A simple man known for speaking his mind, he has an undeniable bond with the impoverished and disenfranchised in Saudi society — even visiting slums to hear the concerns of their inhabitants.
However, even if he turns out to be a genuine reform-minded king like Faisal, King Abdullah is at best a short-term answer to Saudi Arabia’s problems. At 79 years of age, his health cannot be relied upon. Even his designated successor, Crown Prince Sultan, is 76 years old. The passing of the second generation, of whom Sultan and the interior minister Prince Naif are the last, is not far off, and is likely to lead to competition that could be far more destabilising.
‘’The succession seems to have been smooth, but the future looks rough with all sorts of difficulties,’’ says Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy and author of the book After King Fahd. ‘’You have a very old king and crown prince, which makes royal family politics very vicious when it comes to the question of who will rule in two-to-four years.”’
The royal family’s sensitivities to open discussion of succession, and any hint of dissent within its leading ranks, were dramatically made apparent in 2003. The then US ambassador, Robert Jordan, was ordered out of the kingdom, a London-based Arab newspaper claimed, after he voiced Washington’s support for then Crown Prince Abdullah to succeed King Fahd with a member of the younger generation of princes becoming the next crown prince.
The dominance of the sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz, and the opportunity of each to serve as monarch are one of the kingdom’s most distinctive traits. Abdul Aziz, who founded the kingdom in 1932, had at least 40 sons. Princes Faisal, Fahd, Sultan, Naif, and Abdullah are among the most prominent of the 22 still thought to be alive.
They could overlook their own jealousies, if not for the common good, then at least to maintain their own positions in the hierarchy. That is far more difficult for the so-called third generation of powerful princes — the grandsons of King Abdul Aziz. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them, mainly educated in the West and eager one day to wear the crown.
They have many mothers and countless half-brothers in their own ranks. There is no clear line of succession after Crown Prince Sultan, and so those princes in their forties and fifties are jostling for position. Among them are Prince Bandar and the billionaire businessman Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal.
Still more potentially destabilising: the royal house has shared out responsibilities to keep all branches of the family happy, with each region of the country being governed as a quasi-autonomous fief. All the more dangerous is the fact the various armed forces are commanded by competing princes. Ensconced in their power, jealous of their privileges and faced with new challenges to their status, they may now have to fight to maintain their authority.
Economists say King Abdullah may nevertheless use the authority that comes with the crown to speed up economic reform in the kingdom, easing dependence on oil revenues and creating jobs for hundreds of thousands of Saudis who enter the job market every year. But Fahad Nazer, a former political officer in the Saudi Embassy in Washington, predicted little change in the short term.
“Although the government has taken some modest steps toward political reform in the past few years, is it clear that they do not want to be ressured into anything,” he said. “The recent sentencing of three prominent reformers to as many as nine years in jail has sent a clear message to reformers inside the kingdom — and critics outside it — that the government will reform at its own pace and on its own trms.’”
Robert Jordan, US ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003, says Abdullah has forged close ties with president Bush during two visits to Bush’s Texas ranch since the 2001 attacks, providing far more help for US-led forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq than has been publicly acknowledged.
He said the new king had pushed for political openness at the local level, but there were limits to his reform programme. “He has the vision to move forward progressively, but at the same time he clearly feels there has to be an educational process before the Saudi electorate can truly exercise the voting franchise,” Jordan added.
The new king came under immediate pressure for bold moves to tackle the chronic economic and social problems that beset the kingdom, as well as the extremist ideology that fuels terrorism.
“King Fahd’s death is an opportunity to achieve so much in Saudi Arabia in the areas of reform, democracy and women’s rights,” says Ali Al Ahmed, a Washington-based Saudi dissident and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs. The conservative King Abdullah has been unwilling to challenge the power and influence of the Wahhabi clerics who are the foundation of the Saudi royal family’s rule. “The war on terrorism should not only target those who are against the royal family, [but also] those within the royal family who supported and gave aid and comfort to terrorists and their supporters,” Al Ahmed says.
“There should be zero tolerance of all hatred, bigotry and terrorism — especially that coming from the Saudi royals themselves. They cannot lead the way to a better kingdom until they reform themselves,” he adds.
John R. Bradley’s new book, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis, is available from amazon.com, priced US$15.61.
To read the rest of our tribute to the late King Fahd, see Arabian Business available at all the usual outlets.