With the reign of King Abdullah in its twilight, Saudi Arabia has become consumed with speculation about the future of the ruling al-Saud brotherhood as it contends with an increasingly bloody Syrian civil war, a nuclear challenge from Iran, and doubts about U.S. steadfastness in the Middle East.
Abdullah, who has been the dominant figure in Saudi politics since 1995, is in very frail health. The king, who is roughly 90 years old, has made no public appearances for almost four months, and left at the end of May for vacation in Morocco. He only cut his holiday short this past weekend, returning to Riyadh to attend to the fallout from the increasingly bloody civil war in Syria.
Despite his age and frailty, Abdullah has been busy preparing the House of Saud for his departure from the political scene. He has appointed younger princes to key ministries and as governors to the most important provinces, made one half-brother a contender for the throne, sacked another, and weeded out the weakest aspirants among the younger al-Saud princes. Such a sweeping shakeup of the staid ruling family has even included moves to make his own son a prime contender for the throne.
The leadership turnover couldn’t come at a more critical time for the kingdom. Saudi leaders have been deeply anxious about the waning of American leadership in the Middle East — including the U.S. commitment to the kingdom’s protection — just as their confrontation with Iran is coming to a head. This Saudi-Iranian cold war is most evident in Syria, where Tehran strongly supports Bashar al-Assad’s besieged regime and Riyadh is supporting the armed rebellion seeking to overthrow it.
Meanwhile, King Abdullah’s remaining energies have been focused on remaking the House of Saud’s own leadership. The upheaval continued right up to his departure for Morocco: On May 27, Abdullah decreed that the Saudi Royal National Guard, a powerful military force that he commanded for decades, was to become a full-fledged ministry — and that his son, Miteb, 61, would be the new minister. These moves give Miteb more political clout to compete with other rivals for the throne from the younger generation of al-Sauds.
The whirlwind of new appointments has left Saudi citizens and veteran watchers of the House of Saud grasping for meaning in the king’s zigzag maneuverings. It has also raised concerns about a destabilizing power struggle among the younger princes, and questions whether the process of king-making is about to change dramatically. But so far, the smart money is betting that he’s preparing to hand the throne to one of his half-brothers, delaying the transfer of power to the “younger” generation as long as possible.
If that holds true, it isn’t going to please President Barack Obama’s administration, which has been pressing for younger blood to rule the kingdom and accelerate reforms. It rolled out the red carpet for the newly minted Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 53, for his four-day visit to Washington in January, setting up separate meetings with Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, national security advisor Tom Donilon, and other high-ranking US officials. This was taken among Saudis as a signal that Washington favored Mohammed as the next king.
Washington has good reason to look fondly on Mohammed: The prince is not only from the younger generation, but he was the architect of the highly successful Saudi campaign in the mid-2000s to crush al Qaeda inside the kingdom. He also became a family hero after an audacious terrorist attack against him inside his own palace in August 2009, in which a suicide bomber gained a meeting with the prince (after promising to surrender) and then detonated himself. Mohammed escaped miraculously with only slight injuries.
But Prince Mohammed isn’t seen as the likeliest candidate to become the next crown prince. Both Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman, 77, seem ambivalent about whether the time is ripe to pass power from their generation to the next. The brotherhood of senior princes has stuck together with impressive cohesion on the right of one brother to follow another to the throne. Over the past 81 years, the crown has passed five times in this fashion. Now, however, only two of the sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, still appear viable.
If that trend holds — which it has for 81 years — the Saudi “chattering class” gives a better-than-even chance that Prince Ahmed, the youngest of the powerful “Sudairi Seven” brothers at 71 years old, will emerge the winner. That would represent a remarkable turnaround for Ahmed: The king fired him as interior minister last November, after appointing him only five months earlier. However, Ahmed still retains much support within the fractious al-Saud family, according to Saudis in both royal and diplomatic circles.
Ahmed’s abrupt firing as interior minister stemmed from a dispute with the king over a plan to split off the ministry’s 500,000-man security force into a separate body. In an unheard-of display of disapproval of the king, several hundred of Ahmed’s supporters turned out at the airport to greet the prince upon his return to Riyadh after his dismissal. Among his supporters are some human rights activists and the liberal wing of the royal family, led by Prince Talal.
Veteran Saudi watchers of the royal family believe that decision could come down to who lives longer — King Abdullah, who has outlived two crown princes already, or the current heir, Salman. Rumors that the crown prince suffers from Alzheimer’s are untrue, but there is no doubt that Salman has been slowed down considerably by age — he is “certainly no longer the Salman of yesterday,” in the words of one Saudi who recently saw him, a judgment in which U.,S. officials concur. But if Salman does outlive Abdullah to become king, the thinking is that he will favor Ahmed because they are full brothers from the same tightly-knit Sudairi clan.
Should Abdullah miraculously outlive the far younger Salman, he has put his half-brother Muqrin in line to move up the power chain to become the next crown prince. Saudis say Muqrin is clearly campaigning for the job through constant public appearances, designed to keep himself in the limelight. Miteb has also been keeping a high profile, but most Saudi watchers doubt the king is ready to upset the whole al-Saud family by naming him heir apparent — a move that would constitute an unprecedented kingly power play.
Abdullah’s sweeping shakeup of the House of Saud’s leadership hasn’t been kind to the Sudairi clan. One of the king’s first moves was at the Ministry of Defense and Civil Aviation, which had been the personal fiefdom of Prince Sultan, another of the Sudairi brothers, for 48 years. While minister, Sultan allegedly parlayed his grip over tens of billions of dollars in defense spending into a family fortune. He had also positioned his son, Prince Khalid, 63, to take over the ministry, and compete for the crown, by making him assistant defense minister. Khalid’s fame stems from his role as co-commander of the US-led coalition force that drove occupying Iraqi forces out Kuwait in 1991. Khalid’s fortunes seemed on the rise after King Abdullah sacked his own half-brother, Prince Abdul Rahman, who had been deputy defense minister for 33 years, upon Sultan’s death in October 2011. In his place, the king named Khalid, seemingly making him a prime contender to the throne.
But the king, in retrospect, clearly had other ideas. He also put another half-brother, Prince Salman, in charge of the Defense Ministry shortly before naming him crown prince last June, and authorized him to dismantle the Sultan family empire there. Salman did this partly by detaching the civil aviation portfolio from the Defense Ministry and stripping Khalid of any role in lucrative military procurement contracts.
In another of his bold, unexpected strokes, King Abdullah sacked Khalid in April and replaced him with the little-known former head of the Royal Saudi Navy. This leaves the once powerful Sultan branch of the al-Saud family with just one top post, the General Directorate of Intelligence. Since last July, this has been in the hands of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the long-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington who had been the king’s national security advisor.
Choosing the next king of Saudi Arabia still remains a deeply personalized decision, made by the royals at the very upper echelons of the House of Saud. This tradition had seemed set to change dramatically after King Abdullah established in 2007 an Allegiance Council, made up of Abdulaziz’s sons and grandsons, and gave the 35-member body the power to approve or reject the king’s choice as heir apparent.
So far, however, the Allegiance Council has remained moribund, and the king has appointed two crown princes of his own choosing. One council member, the liberal Prince Talal, resigned in disgust after Abdullah failed to consult the body when he chose the conservative Prince Nayef as his successor in October 2011. When Nayef died last June, the king immediately appointed Prince Salman as crown prince, again without any known consultation with the council.
It is a time of change for the risk-averse royals in Riyadh. In addition to the eventual handover of power to the next generation of Saudi princes and the struggle for Syria, the princes doubt whether Washington is still committed to the longstanding US-Saudi security relationship. King Abdullah’s moves in the next months and years will determine who leads Saudi Arabia — and what sort of Middle East the kingdom must contend with — for decades to come.
First published in Foreign Policy.