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Toeing the royal line: Resolving succession amidst Saudi conflict

By BAYLY WINDER | November 3, 2011

After years of poor health and a lengthy battle with cancer, Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, died on Oct. 22, 2011. Prince Sultan was the Minister of Defense and Aviation for nearly five decades and one of the most senior and powerful individuals in the ruling Al-Saud family. Five days later, as expected, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud was appointed the new Crown Prince. These developments have raised concerns about the line of succession, particularly as the leading government figures continue to age.

In 1926, Abdulaziz Al-Saud founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and became the country's first monarch. Since his death in 1953, all five subsequent kings have been descendants of the founding father. The current head of state, King Abdullah, is 87-years-old and recently underwent extensive back surgery. Given his age and condition, it is quite likely that Crown Prince Nayef will become the next ruler.    Saudi Arabia has become an economic superpower due to massive oil wealth. The Kingdom has approximately 226 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. It is also notable that the two holiest sites in Islam — Mecca and Medina — are on Saudi soil. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States date back to 1945, when King Abdulaziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a famed meeting in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. Both states view the relationship as crucial. Ties have been strong in spite of tense periods, such as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and 9/11. Today, key aspects of the relationship include military cooperation and counterterrorism efforts, as well as mutual dependency on oil imports and exports.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has entered an era of cautious reform. In September, for instance, the King announced that women would be able to vote in Saudi Arabian municipal council elections in 2015. While women's suffrage is taken for granted in the West, this unprecedented move is significant and controversial in Saudi Arabia, even though elections there are still relatively inconsequential.

In 2006, King Abdullah formed the Allegiance Council, also known as the Bayah Council. This body is composed of male members of the House of Saud, the Saudi royal ruling family and was responsible for selecting Nayef as the new Crown Prince. However, it remains unclear who makes the ultimate choice and whether or not the King is still the ultimate decider. On Oct. 28, former Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal discussed the Council's role at the Arab-US Policymakers Conference in Washington, DC.

"I can tell you that the right choice was made," he said, referencing Prince Nayef's appointment. "And it was made by the Bayah Council, which was established five years ago by King Abdullah to oversee the succession in the Kingdom. And in spite of all of the dire predictions of ‘Beltway' experts, the council performed exceptionally well. And there was unanimity in his selection when the King nominated him."

Crown Prince Nayef is generally seen as conservative, highly religious and a defender of the status quo. In 1975, he became the Minister of the Interior. Under that title, he has taken an aggressive stance against terrorists and rejected calls for a more democratic Saudi Arabia. According to British historian Robert Lacey, Prince Nayef and King Abdullah represent a conservative-liberal alliance at the top of the government. Shortly after 9/11, Crown Prince Nayef suggested that Zionists played a part in the attacks. In 2009, he publicly opposed women participating in politics. It would be a surprise to many if women finally became able to drive under his rule.

It is important to consider Crown Prince Nayef's views within the context of Saudi society. This is perhaps the most traditional country in the world. The dominant branch of Islam in the Kingdom — Wahhabism — is extremely strict and resistant to change. Saudi Arabia has always struggled with modernization and Westernization, and is rife with contradictions in the societal sphere. In one generation, massive improvements in infrastructure, technology and quality of life have created an intense conflict between the guardians of tradition and those who support liberalization.

Earlier this year, the British Embassy in Riyadh polled Saudis on this issue. The results were staggering, 20 percent of Saudis favor political and social change, 20 percent are content with the status quo, and 60 percent believe that reforms have gone too far under King Abdullah. These figures suggest that Crown Prince Nayef better represents the majority of Saudis than does King Abdullah.

 Within the Al-Saud family, the Sudairi Seven are an influential force. These seven men are the result of the marriage between King Abdulaziz and Princess Hussa bin Ahmed Al-Sudairi. Prominent brothers include King Fahd (1921-2005), Crown Prince Sultan (1930-2011), Crown Prince Nayef and Prince Salman. The Governor of the Riyadh Province, Prince Salman is a well-respected man and the prime candidate to become Crown Prince after Nayef.

Eventually, the grandsons of King Abdulaziz will lead the government of Saudi Arabia. It is unclear how fundamental the changes will be when that occurs, but the Allegiance Council will certainly have a more challenging decision at that point. For now, one must focus on Crown Prince Nayef. While he probably will not reverse King Abdullah's policies if he becomes King, he will likely take a hard-line position on domestic issues. Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, however, will not be drastically affected.

In the wake of Prince Sultan's death, Saudi Arabia is emerging as a subject of heated debate. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and United States is enigmatic in many ways, but patently bound by oil. As long as that fact remains, Americans must hope for smooth transitions of power in the Al-Saud family. Crown Prince Nayef is orthodox, even by Saudi standards, but he is also a pragmatic and intelligent individual intent on maintaining his country's security.


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