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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs countermeasure at UN More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prisoni
X
Heather Murdock
July 01, 2015 8:59 PM
As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs