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Mordechai Kedar: What’s Next for Saudi Arabia?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
Photo Credit: Omar Rashidi/Flash90

The fact that Abd al-Rahman and his brother, Muta’ib, did not come to congratulate Naif on his new position and declare their loyalty was very meaningful, because Naif dared to bypass Muta’ib, who is older than he is, for the position of deputy prime minister, and Abd Al-Rahman was angry because Salman was named minister of security after the death of Sultan. Complicated? Perhaps, but it seems that the advanced years of these aged princes does not diminish the craving for power or their rivalry for honor, which is reminiscent of the rivalries between the relatives and cronies of the heads of power of past empires: the Roman, Byzantine, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, which collapsed as a result of – among other reasons – squabbles of this sort.

However, everyone remembers that the king appointed Naif without the Council of Bi’a, and it may be that he will surprise everyone again, this time with a choice from among the generation of the grandsons to be crown prince. Everyone knows that the day will come when the last of the brothers – the sons of Abd al-Aziz will pass away, and there will be no choice but to name one of the many grandsons. If this occurs without the presence of a “responsible adult” from the generation of the sons, the grandsons may bicker over the coveted position of king. Therefore the possibility exists that the present king will expedite the “succession of the generations” by naming a crown prince, who will become the next king when the time comes, according to his own choice. The question in the background is “from which grandmother – wife of Abd al-Aziz” – will a future king be chosen to sit on the royal throne, because there is a hierarchy among the grandmothers.

A great number of grandsons, aged approximately in their sixties, already fulfill important roles in the governmental system, mainly as deputy ministers, and each time one of the sons’ generation is brought to his final rest, every one of the grandsons sees himself as the likely candidate for upgrade. The most coveted position after the kingship is minister of the interior, since whoever serves in this role sits at the nerve center of state administration. This is how Prince Naif, who was the dominant and actual ruler of the kingdom for more than thirty years, designed it in recent decades.

The members of the ruling family in Saudi Arabia are traditional, passionate and very resistant to change, and it’s not clear if the king will take radical steps, like naming a young prince, with whatever talents he may have, to the role of crown prince. Rather, biology, years and illness impose themselves upon all of the events, and the recent cases of deaths among senior officials – the death of two crown princes, Sultan and Naif, within eight months of each other – may undermine the stability of the family and consequently, the stability of the monarchy. One possible candidate from among the grandsons is Mukran, the head of intelligence, however he is nearing 70… The generation of the grandsons is not only younger but is also different from the point of view of their educational background, since many of them spent years in the West studying in leading universities. The leading names in this group are Khaled and Turki, sons of King Faizal, Mahmoud bin Naif, Bandar bin Sultan (the past ambassador in Washington), Abd Al-Aziz bin Fahd, Abd Al-Aziz son of the current king Abdullah, and there are many more.

Challenges

The crown prince will have to cope – perhaps soon, as king – with the difficult and volatile situation in the region and especially in Syria, the Iranian threat on Saudi Arabia and the other states of the Gulf, and the status of the monarchy in the region and in the world, as the state that exports the greatest quantity of oil.

In the internal arena, the king will need to cope with the contradictory and conflicting trends that are exerting great influence on Saudi society: on one side – the increasing demand to carry out political reforms based on expanding the number of recipients of the government pie beyond the family of King Abd al-Aziz, founder of the monarchy, in order to give opportunities to other talented people; to bring about a more just division of the wealth of the kingdom, mainly pertaining to the income from oil; to sever the connection between the legal system and the ruling family, so that the court will be seen as more just and legitimate in the eyes of the people; to broaden the circle of institutions that are chosen by the public and to increase their authorities; to separate the branches of government, and improve the monitoring of performance through a legislative authority and free, independent and effective oversight. A “state family” does not easily accept changes of this sort, which might undermine its power within the state systems.

About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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