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.’”

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

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs