News / Middle East

The Making of Kings in Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia welcomes the Gulf Arab leaders as they arrive in the Saudi capital Riyadh to take part in the opening of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, May 10, 2011.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia welcomes the Gulf Arab leaders as they arrive in the Saudi capital Riyadh to take part in the opening of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, May 10, 2011.
Cecily Hilleary
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah recently underwent relatively minor back surgery and his hospitalization triggered a host of increasingly dire rumors about the state of his health.  Though the 88-year-old monarch has since recovered and appeared in public, the episode has raised new questions about royal succession, an issue that has loomed over Saudi Arabia for years.
 
As they advance in age, one Saudi leader after another faces the same tough decision: should the crown continue to be passed from brother to brother – the sons of the Kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud? Or has the time come for a new generation of leaders?
 
Short-term Kings
 
After the sudden death of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef last June, his brother Salman, 76, was named Crown Prince and is likely to become the next king in spite of his poor health.  But who should succeed him?  Only a handful of his brothers are still living and in reasonable health, and some even ask whether they would be up to the task of leading the Kingdom.  
 
Simon Henderson, Baker Fellow and Director of the Gulf and Energy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describes the Saudi monarchy as a series of “short-term kings.”  
 
“The problem is that the kings have been becoming kings later in their lives and therefore they haven’t had the energy to properly serve,” Henderson said.  “As a result, things do not get done as they might with a younger, more energetic leader — and it raises the likelihood of political unrest.”
 
Some in the West suggest that the obvious solution would be to pass the scepter on to the next generation – something the Kingdom has been reluctant to do for deeply entrenched reasons.
 
“The Saudi system confers seniority by age, and age is respected,” Henderson said.  “And when you have got such a value system, it is very difficult to break out of the current way of doing things.” 
 
More problematic, said Henderson, is deciding who to choose. 
 
“Any selection of a future Crown Prince means excluding some people who are the residual sons of the founder of the Kingdom, Ibn Saud,” Henderson said, “and also deciding which line of the next generation should inherit the throne.” 
 
And that could lead to rivalry, which is not without precedent in Saudi history.

Karen Elliott House is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future.  She has been travelling to the Saudi Kingdom for 30  years and has personally met many of the royals.  She tells the story of a decade-long antagonism between former King Saud and his brother Faisal.
 
“When Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz died,” House said, “he named his eldest son, Saud, as his successor and his second eldest son, Faisal, as Saud’s Crown Prince.  And he told them over his deathbed, ‘Hold hands over my body and promise you will never quarrel in public.’” 
 
As it turned out, House said, the sons quarreled for nearly a decade -- until Faisal ousted Saud and made himself  king.  “And then he was murdered by his nephew,” House added.
 
Observers say that perhaps the most obvious rivalry is between the so-called ‘Sudairi Seven,’ sons of Abdulaziz who share the same mother, Hassa al-Sudairi, said to have been a favorite among King Abdulaziz' wives.
 
“The Sudairi Seven tried to dominate, did dominate, and they still do dominate,” Henderson said, “but to a lesser extent, because with the death of Kings Fahd, Sultan and Nayef, they are only a ‘Sudairi Four.’ And one of those, Turki, lives in exile, Salman is in poor health, Ahmed has just lost his job as  Minister of the Interior, and Abdulrahman is annoyed for being passed over, so it’s really a ‘Sudairi Two-and-a-Half.’”
 


Kingmaking
 
House says there are no written laws governing the selection of future Saudi kings.
 
“Traditionally, the king and a small inner circle of powerful princes have met in secret to decide on a crown prince,” House said. “Nobody is entirely sure how, and [what] the known qualifications are that he be, in essence, by age, but also be the most competent to rule.”
 
In an attempt to pre-empt potentially bumpy transitions, King Abdullah established the Allegiance Council in 2006.  The Council consists of 35 members representing each branch of the royal family. If any die or become incapacitated, they may be represented by their sons. 
 
Should the current king pass away, the Council is charged with naming the new king.  He then has  10 days to inform the Council whom he wants as his crown prince. He is permitted to name as many as three candidates, and if none of them are to the Council’s liking, its members may propose an alternative.
 
The trouble is that the Council has never been tested.  “It’s the nature of the Saudi Kingdom that whoever is king can do whatever he wants,” Henderson said.  That means Crown Prince Salman, if he ascends the throne, could give preference to his own family line.
 
Royal Contenders
 
Only two of the 16 surviving sons of Abdulaziz are considered to be suitable royal candidates

Former Interior Minister Prince Ahmed, Salman’s full brother.  At 72, Prince Ahmed is the youngest of the so-called "Sudairi Seven.  In November, Ahmed was removed from his post as interior minister and replaced by his nephew, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, 53.  House doubts Ahmed will be picked.  “It might be a problem in the family to have two full brothers serving as King and Crown Prince,” she said. The former director of Saudi intelligence, Prince Muqrin,the youngest surviving son of King Abdulaziz, is another possible candidate. 

However, Henderson says Muqrin is not likely to be selected because his mother is foreign-born. “This produces a pedigree issue, which is a big deal in Saudi,” Henderson said.
 
Both House and Henderson do agree that there is one candidate in the third generation of princes who could emerge as Deputy Crown Prince:  The new Minister of Interior, Mohamed bin Nayef.   
 
“He speaks English, he’s very engaging, and he has run this terrorist rehabilitation program, which apparently has been very successful,” House said.  She calls Mohamed bin Nayef "very "impressive."
 
That said, it may be some time before any significant change occurs within the ruling family.
 
“It’s a very uncertain future for the next couple of years,” Henderson said, “and of course the problems in the Middle East and the problems in the world don’t stand still, so we will have concerns about the Iran nuclear program, about oil, about changes in the Arab world described as the ‘Arab Spring.’  We’ll also have concerns about Shi’ites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and Shi’ites in neighboring Bahrain.”
 
All of these issues will likely continue to “bubble,” said Henderson — if not constantly, at least occasionally, and this is bound to cause headaches for whoever occupies the Saudi throne.

You May Like

India PM Modi's party distances itself from religious conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote a Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: anonymous
December 11, 2012 9:06 PM
Whoever will be the king as long there is freedom of speech and religion

In Response

by: Ali AlAhmed from: Washington DC
December 11, 2012 10:49 PM
to limit comments on this to westerners is very xenophobic, especially given the fact that there are better experts on the issue who love in Washington where this writer lives.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacksi
X
December 19, 2014 12:45 AM
The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid