The arrival of King Abdullah in New York on November 22, for surgery, has occasioned a flood of commentary about Saudi Arabia and the matter of succession in that opaque realm. In the latest dispatches, the king is still in the United States and has undergone two back surgeries. On some level, the concern is justifiable, for the man has been a consequential monarch. He succeeded his half brother, Fahd, in 2005, and has, by Saudi standards, pushed for some drastic reforms in the social and political practices of the land. The world has taken notice of the impact of his kingship, Forbes has recently ranked him third in a list of the 100 most powerful people in the world – China’s president ranked first, Barack Obama second. But care must be exercised: were Abdullah to pass from the scene, the Saudi monarchy would not be faced with a major crisis of succession.
The House of Saud is, arguably, the most successful family business in history, it will survive the passing of this monarch as it did earlier transfers of power. In 1964, a monarch, Saud, was forced to abdicate in favor of his Crown Prince, Faisal. In 1975, Faisal himself was struck down by one of his nephews, and the realm endured. Personality matters in autocracies, to be sure, but Saudi kings have been, since the death of the founder of this Saudi state, Ibn Saud, in 1953, first among equals, and the sons of Ibn Saud have had a way of dividing the power and the spoils of their father’s inheritance.
The uncertainty of this moment in Saudi political history derives from the age and the poor health of both King Abdullah, and his half-brother Crown Prince Sultan. Desert chronicles are not particularly reliable, but Abdullah and Sultan were both born in 1923; indeed, Sultan is said to be in his final days. He had to rush back from Morocco, where he has spent the last year or so, coping with a deadly cancer and its brutal treatment. The anxiety of Saudi “liberals” who have come to see Abdullah as the standard-bearer of their cause is that the third man in the pyramid of power is interior minister Prince Naif, a scold, a humorless man, who is a patron of the reactionaries in the religious establishment and its huge bureaucracy. When last heard from, beyond the bubble of his country, Prince Naif had opined that the attacks of 9/11 had been the work of Zionists, that there were no Saudi boys aboard those planes that brought death onto American soil. On matters of great concern to those who would want to open up this realm – the emancipation of women, their right to drive, to travel freely, to do the most basic of transactions without the sponsorship of a male guardian, and to partake of normal life, the possibility of reining in extremists within the religious establishment – Naif is anathema to the modernists in his country. Where Abdullah and Sultan are both gregarious types – and Abdullah has become a genuinely beloved figure among women and the young – Naif, a decade younger, is a more forbidding man. His right to succession, were Abdullah and Sultan to pass away, must be deemed automatic. The Saudi press now officially recognizes him as “the third man” of the monarchy. Not particularly media friendly in the past, there is already underway a subtle campaign to adorn and soften his public image. He has kept the realm safe, it is said of him, and underneath the stern image, there is a man of dialogue and deep knowledge of the proper balance between religion and politics in Saudi life.
There is no free-lancing in the House of Saud. The brothers run the realm (Ibn Saud left some thirty-odd sons behind) and among themselves, the brothers come to a tacit agreement over the order of things. Some senior princes go into business and savor the privileges of wealth and a private life. The ones who have a shot at kingship are few, marked by temperament and a long period of apprenticeship. After Abdullah and Sultan, three or four could get the nod – Naif of course, his full brother Salman, the prince of Riyadh, and one of the big players in the monarchy, perhaps head of intelligence, Prince Miqrin, the second youngest of the brothers. Beyond, there looms the role of the grandsons of Ibn Saud. Because the founder had so many sons, and over an extended period of time, some of the grandsons are now roughly the same age as that of the younger of their uncles. The grandsons are in the wings, merit and luck and performance as provincial governors, or stand-ins for the elders, will separate the aspirants. In a subtle process known to the royals but opaque to the outsiders, the House of Saud winnows out the contenders. It has a way of sifting out those fated for genuine power. It is unlikely that a major power struggle would break out in the royal household. King Abdullah waited patiently for his turn. He continued to serve as Crown Prince for a long decade after Fahd suffered a stroke. He ruled in his brother’s name, it was unthinkable that he would move against his brother who was barely conscious of his surroundings. In Qatar next door, the current ruler pulled off a coup against his own father, and the father spent several years trying to unseat his son. This is not the Saudi way.
Now and then, there are rumors of palace revolts in Arabia, speculations that the House of Saud is in imminent danger. There is also guesswork about the pro-American proclivity of this prince, and the anti-American sentiments of this or that brother. But the truth of the realm is simple. The founder of this Saudi dynasty conquered Riyadh for his family in 1902; little more than a century later, his sons still man the realm. We may have opinions about the House of Saud – they are no friends of liberty, they adopt modern ways reluctantly, their realm is forbidding and unwelcoming of outsiders – but rumors of their demise are exaggerated. They know their land and its people, they have survived mighty storms. “England is of Europe. I am a friend of the Ingliz (the British), but I will walk with them only as far as my religion and my honor would permit,” Ibn Saud said decades ago of his strategy for survival when Britain was the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. His sons have exhibited a similar cunning in the game of nations.
The American connection is a cornerstone of Saudi security, but the Saudis are shrewd about their American protectors. They are keen to keep a safe distance from Pax Americana, secure in the knowledge that the Americans would turn up if the Saudi realm was in peril. Successive American administrations – often without defending the proposition in public – have operated on the assumption that there is no good alternative to the House of Saud, that the Arabian Peninsula does not provide the soil for democratic, participatory politics. Were Niccolo Machiavelli to walk among us again, he would give his highest marks to the House of Saud on the manner with which they have made their way at home and in the world of nations. So a monarch is ailing, and so is his designated successor. But a whole host of brothers and sons and nephews await their turn.
(photo credit: Ammar Abd Rabbo)