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

    Clinton, Trump and the 'Woman’s Card'

    Ask supporters of Democratic front-runner in US presidential campaign, and they’ll tell you Republican presidential candidate is playing a dangerous hand

    Russian Censorship Group Seeks Chinese Help to Better Control Internet

    At recent Safe Internet League forum in Moscow, speakers from both nations underscored desire for authorities to further limit and control information online

    Video Makeshift Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Free classes in Islamabad park serve a few of the country’s nearly 25 million out-of-school youths; NGO cites ‘education crisis’

    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.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora