Saudi regime at a turning point after death of Fahd and succession of Abdallah

Developing Just Leadership

Nasr Salem

Ramadan 28, 1426 2005-11-01

Special Reports

by Nasr Salem (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 9, Ramadan, 1426)

When Saudi king Fahd died on August 1, the kingdom made a fine show of an orderly succession. Nonetheless, his successor, Abdullah, faces enormous challenges and uncertainties. NASR SALEM reports.

For King Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz, Saudi Arabia's new ruler, the death on August 1 of the late king Fahd, his long-incapacitated half-brother, ended a decade of serving as de facto ruler of the Saudi state without enjoying the prerogatives and powers of a monarch. But the recent apparently smooth succession is deceptive. Behind the veneer of calm that surrounded it lurk enormous uncertainties and challenges that face the House of Saud.

With Abdallah another threshold was crossed in a succession crisis that has for many years been developing beneath the surface. Since the death of Abd al-Aziz, the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia, in 1953, succession has been restricted to his sons, with the throne passing to the oldest surviving son sired by the founder. Now the country finds itself inching closer to the time when power passes from the dwindling ranks of this second-generation of Saudi leaders to the grandsons of the kingdom's founder.

In some ways, Abdallah's accession to the throne marks the beginning of a phase in the history of Saudi Arabia that is similar to the immediate post-Brezhnev period in the former Soviet Union, where there was a rapid succession of ageing rulers within a few years. Although the 82-year-old Abdallah appears to be in relatively robust health, his age means that it will probably not be long before he starts showing signs of infirmity. His crown prince, 80-year-old Sultan, is ailing; he was once treated for cancer of the colon. The two most prominent figures from among the remaining second-generation princes are 72-year-old Prince Nayef, the interior minister, and 70-year-old Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh. Like the late Fahd and the new crown prince, both are members of the Sudayri line (the seven sons of Hassah al-Sudayri, the favourite wife of Abd al-Aziz). Other senior royals include deputy interior minister Prince Ahmad, also a Sudayri, and public works and housing minister prince Mit'ib, who is not a Sudayri. The youngest future contender is Abd al-Majid, the governor of Makkah and a non-Sudayri half-brother of Abdallah, who is now in his fifties. This state of affairs holds out the prospect of a rapid succession of kings. In a country where the monarch makes major policy decisions and is deeply involved in the day-to-day affairs of state, such a situation is potentially highly destabilizing. This is especially true because the process of succession involves intra-family rivalries and squabbles.

The problem of determining who among the hundreds of grandchildren of Abd al-Aziz will be acceptable to the council of princes, which represents the various branches of the Al-e Saud and oversees the process of succession, might have great political implications for the stability of the country and the cohesion of the ruling family. In March 1992 King Fahd introduced the Basic Law, which proclaims that “Rulers of the country shall be amongst the sons of the founder and their descendants. The most upright among them shall receive allegiance.” The fact that according to the Basic Law seniority is no longer the determining criterion for kingship casts a pall of doubt over the possibility of orderly transitions of power in the future.

The princes belonging to the al-Faisal branch, who are the sons of king Faisal, who was assassinated in 1975, have amassed more power than other third-generation princes. Prince Saud al-Faysal, the country's foreign minister, and his brother Prince Turki al-Faisal, who resigned from the position of intelligence chief shortly before the attacks in September 2001 and has recently become ambassador to Washington, are the most senior members of this branch. This contrasts sharply with the political fortunes of the three politically-active sons of the new king, who all have positions in the National Guard, which has been headed by their father since he founded the autonomous force in 1962. Abdallah's son Mit'ib is the deputy commander of the National Guard. The fact that Abdallah has not managed to promote his sons to positions of influence outside the National Guard indicates his narrow power-base within the ruling family.

There is no doubt that this limited power lessens the effectiveness of the new ruler in carrying out his policy agenda. So Abdallah, who has shown interest in rooting out rampant corruption within the ranks of the royal family and in instituting limited political and economic reforms, will have to enlist the support of his Sudayri half-brothers and other influential members of the royal family in order to expand his support-base and implement his reform agenda. Since the death of Abd al-Aziz, the “Sudayri Seven” have enjoyed considerable political weight and occupied centre-stage in the internal politicking and power struggles of the royal family. These sons of Abd al-Aziz have assumed major ministerial posts and amassed monstrous wealth. This concentration of power and wealth in the Sudayri line has always been a source of friction among the various lines jockeying for power and influence among the descendants of Abd al-Aziz..

In the past few years Abdallah, as de facto ruler, has overseen a process of national dialogue, which included periodic meetings with various sectors of the populace; earlier this year he introduced local elections. But Abdallah's agenda of reform has been restricted by the opposition of other powerful princes, as well as by its narrow scope. Despite its significance as the first election of its kind in the kingdom, the municipal election was restricted to men. Influential princes have looked askance at some of these reforms, and worked actively to impede the reform process. Interior minister Nayef is reportedly opposed to Abdallah's moves for reform. Moreover, the fundamentally glacial pace of Abdallah's reform agenda is rooted in fears that radical and sweeping reforms will not help to keep the present system intact.

The same applies to fighting corruption within the royal household. Unlike the late Fahd, who led a lax lifestyle and allowed people around him to get away with corrupt behaviour and profit from it, Abdallah has the reputation of being more reserved and religious in his behaviour, and of being a man of relative integrity in Saudi Arabia's royal ocean of sleaze. Opposition to anti-corruption measures is likely to stem from many influential princes who have been feeding voraciously at the public trough, surrounding themselves, in the process, with coteries of toadies and sycophants. Any reforms aimed at transparency will entail greater accountability and curbs on the princes' appetite for gigantic personal fortunes syphoned from the country's oil wealth.

In terms of foreign policy, no radical shift in Saudi Arabia's course is expected under Abdallah. Despite the perception that Abdallah is less pro-American than his predecessor, the new ruler still maintains close links with the US, and is not in a position to usher in any meaningful change in the kingdom's foreign policy. He is expected to continue efforts to mend ties with theUS, which deteriorated after the attacks in September 2001, when it was revealed that 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals.

Abdallah's accession to the throne could hardly have come at a more sensitive time for the global oil markets. With oil trading at more than $60 a barrel, the oil policy of the kingdom, which sits on top of 25 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and is the world's largest exporter of crude oil, will continue to be crucial for stabilizing the oil prices and providing fuel to keep westerners' cars running and homes warm. Saudi Arabia currently pumps some 9.5 million barrels of crude per day, and has the capacity to produce an additional 2 million barrels per day to rectify any interruptions in the international oil-market resulting from supply shortfalls. As oil-revenues make up between 90 and 95 percent of the country's total export earnings and account for 70 to 80 percent of state income, sharp spikes in oil prices over the past two years have generated a windfall for Saudi Arabia. Although this rise in oil revenues has served several purposes for the country's rulers (playing down the kingdom's massive public debt, covering increased security-related expenditures and buying citizens' consent by higher subsidies for services such as housing, education and healthcare), it also underlines the ultimately fatal dependence of the kingdom on oil.

Despite being awash with cash, Abdallah still finds himself forced to deal with serious economic challenges, especially that of weaning the economy away from its dependence on oil and creating employment for the growing numbers of Saudi job-seekers. There is no easy solution for the problem of unemployment, which ranges between 20 and 30 percent in various parts of the kingdom. “Saudization”, which entails reducing dependence on foreign labour, could end up being economically counter-productive. A significant proportion of expatriate workers inSaudi Arabia are cheap labour doing menial jobs – housemaids, cleaners, drivers, factory workers, farm hands, etc. – that Saudis do not want to do. Replacing foreign workers in middle-level jobs with Saudis could increase the rate of inflation; Saudis will have to be paid higher wages than foreigners in many sectors, which will mean higher prices for many services. As for high-level jobs, the local Saudi labour market suffers from a lack of workers with the advanced qualifications in science and technology that are needed for such jobs.

Security concerns will continue to weigh heavily on Abdallah's rule. Since Fahd allowed US troops into the desert kingdom in 1990, some segments of the Saudi population have become increasingly radicalized. This radicalization has pushed many young Saudis into the jihadi salafism of al-Qa'ida, which aims to overthrow the royal family. The carrot-and-stick approach adopted by the new king has succeeded in persuading some members of al-Qa'ida to turn themselves in, and in either capturing or eliminating some members who were on the country's most-wanted list. But it cannot be concluded that the al-Qa'ida threat has completely subsided. Confrontations with members of al-Qa'ida continue to take place inside Saudi Arabia, and it is likely that the threat posed by al-Qa'ida will be aggravated, as Saudis who have joined armed groups in Iraq begin to arrive home. Like their predecessors who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, they are likely to use the skills they have acquired in Iraq in Saudi Arabia itself.

The threat from al-Qa'ida also chips away at one of the fundamental pillars of legitimacy of the rule of the House of Saud, which is inextricably linked with the rise and expansion of Wahhabism in the Arabian peninsula. Despite the considerable power enjoyed by Saudi kings, the legitimacy of their rule has historically rested on their ability to secure a combination of tribal and Wahhabi consent. Now that a major segment of the Wahhabi movement has turned against the Saudi hands that helped to nurture it, the Al-e Saud find themselves under pressure to reform the salafi traditions of the desert kingdom and to search for new methods of legitimization. Their failure to reconstitute their legitimacy in the kingdom without Wahhabism may combine with other crises to weaken further their ability to retain political power.

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