Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saudi Arabia's Collateral Politics

An Economist "Briefing" foretells change in Saudi Arabia, partly due to dynastic uncertainty:
"King Abdullah, the oldest surviving son of Abdel Aziz bin Saud, the kingdom’s founder, is at least 89. His back problems cause him a lot of pain, which may well be heavily medicated. His half-brother and heir, Crown Prince Sultan, who had served for 49 years as defence minister, died last October at the age of 87. On June 16th Sultan’s replacement as next-in-line, Crown Prince Nayef, whose 37 years as interior minister had left him widely feared, also passed away. Prince Salman, who took over Sultan’s lucrative defence fief last year, is now confirmed as the new heir and crown prince. He is more than a decade younger, but has already suffered at least one stroke. Two of his 12 sons have died prematurely of heart disease.
"There are three younger brothers who might aspire to the throne, though they do not command the same standing within the family or popular respect as the older men: Ahmed, long Prince Nayef’s deputy at the interior ministry and now confirmed as his successor, who is believed to be in his early 70s; Sattam, who has succeeded Salman as governor of Riyadh; and Muqrin, who heads the intelligence services. The youngest of the three dozen legitimate sons of Abdel Aziz, Prince Muqrin is thought to be nearing 70...
"Sons of Princes Sultan and Nayef hold the main posts in the ministries of defence and interior, respectively. The National Guard, which protects oil installations, is a purview of King Abdullah’s own branch; the governorship of the Eastern Province, a giant territory that contains nearly all the kingdom’s hydrocarbons, has been held by a son of King Fahd (Abdullah’s predecessor) for three decades. The recent reshuffle among King Abdullah’s siblings went more smoothly than many had feared; the shift to this next generation will surely be trickier."
The problem with Saudi Arabia's generational change is that King Abd al-Aziz, the founder of the modern kingdom, had over 30 sons, of whom the current King Abdullah is the fifth to reign.  That's a lot of descendants to sort through and manage.  Most of the other sons established personal fiefdoms within state ministries or other government bodies, as the ruling family evolved into what Madawi al-Rasheed called in the 2010 second edition of her A History of Saudi Arabia "a headless tribe, whose strength lies in its segments rather than in strong leadership."  Decision-making is thus collaborative and consensus-based within the royal family.  For purposes of the succession, this has been institutionalized in the Council of Allegiance, which has one representative for each of the sons of King Abd al-Aziz.

How will the succession work going forward?  In addition to the princes mentioned above, the sons of former kings Faysal and Fahd are probably most important.  Faysal developed Saudi Arabia's administration and his sons received key positions in it.  His son Saud is still foreign minister.  Fahd was simply king for a long time, though his sons have somewhat wild reputations.  These two blocks will have influence alongside those of the princes currently passing through the post of crown prince.

In order to build consensus, or at least a working majority, of the Council of Allegiance, someone will have to develop a principle by which succession can pass to the next generation without making the number of candidates unmanageable.  I believe the most likely such principle is to limit succession among the grandsons of King Abd al-Aziz to the sons of the "Sudairi Seven."  This group includes the late King Fahd and all three crown princes under Abdullah.  Two of them, Abd al-Rahman and Turki, are on the outs with the rest of the royal family.  The seventh, Ahmad, is mentioned above by The Economist as the new interior minister.

If Ahmad is the next crown prince after Salman, then he will probably live long enough to effectively exclude the sons of Faysal, which practically forcing generational change thereafter.  He could, in other words, be a useful transitional figure to allow the Sudairi Seven to consolidate their power.  At the same time, the Council of Allegiance, under the Sudairi influence, would use their power to appoint the crown prince to make sure its a son of, say, Sultan or Nayef.  If a son of Faysal were appointed, the expectation would be he would not live to reign, or at least not very long.

This is hypothetical, of course, though it does seem the most efficient way for the most influential Saudi royals to achieve their ambitions for the future.  One should not, however, ignore the possibility that any succession battle could spill into the public sphere, with princes of whole collateral lines unable to rise in intrafamily politics trying to rally the street with an ideological agenda.  The "Free Princes" tried something similar a few decades ago, and some say that the marginalization of the descendants of Salim by those of Jabir has led the former to open space for Kuwait's rambunctious politics of recent years.



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