by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 12, Rabi' al-Thani, 1436)
The death of King Abdullah (he was 90) on January 23 has exposed the deep fissures in the artificial ‘Saudi’ kingdom. People are demanding their basic rights and will settle for nothing less.
The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the early hours of Friday January 23 has resulted in several developments that are likely to have major geostrategic and political implications. While his death was expected since he was hospitalized around Christmas time suffering from pneumonia — at his age (officially 90, but who knows how old he really was) even a common cold would have proved fatal — when the news was announced on Saudi television, it led to a frenzy of speculation.
Such speculation is not misplaced. The new king, Salman ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz is 79 but more critically, he suffers from many ailments including Alzheimers, which causes dementia. He looks pale, almost deathly and has difficulty walking. How long will he be around? That is why, he moved quickly to confirm Prince Muqrin, the former Deputy Crown Prince in the post of Crown Prince. Muqrin is 70; are there no younger members of the House of Saud, asked some commentators? There are but hitherto, they were not given an opportunity. With Abdullah’s death, this question, like his body, has been laid to rest.
Within hours of being sworn in as king, Salman announced that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, currently Interior Minister, will be the new Deputy Crown Prince thereby confirming his position as the future king of Saudi Arabia. He also appointed his relatively young son Mohammed (born 1980) to become defence minister, a portfolio Salman occupied after his older brother Sultan died in October 2011. More importantly, he appointed his own son as general secretary of the royal court, in contravention of the long-established tradition of keeping this post in the Tuwaijri family. The dismissed gatekeeper to the royal court, Khalid al-Tuwaijri is known to have been involved in many foreign intrigues. Does this signal a change in Saudi policies?
Interestingly, when Sultan died in October 2011, the defence ministry was not handed to one of his sons (as has been the general tradition), such as Khalid bin Sultan who was Sandhurst-trained and carries the title of “general” but is known to be a complete dunce. When Abdullah became king and relinquished the post of Commander of the National Guard, he transferred this post to his son Miteb. He also created a cabinet post for him placing him in a better position for the throne in the future. The quick changes by Salman have led to speculation that there has been a coup by the Sudairis (Salman and Nayef are both from the same Sudairi mother making her Mohammed bin Nayef’s grandmother; Abdullah was from a different mother). This, however, must be considered highly speculative. After all, it was Abdullah that appointed Mohammed bin Nayef as Interior Minister and viewed him favourably because of his competence in neutralizing the threat from al-Qaeda in the Kingdom.
Bani Saud has renamed the blessed land that the noble Messenger (pbuh) called the Arabian Peninsula as “Saudi” Arabia as if the family owns it.
When Salman became king, the royal court announcement said that people lined up to “pledge allegiance” to him. This is stretching the truth. The people of Arabia have no say in the selection, approval or rejection of the king or any of his ministers. Such matters are decided in the secretive inner sanctum of Bani Saud where the dinosaurs gather, presumably over dates and camel milk (or perhaps even whisky now!), to make these decisions. Those that lined up to pledge “allegiance” were other princes, courtiers, tribal chiefs and hangers-on. This was all for the cameras. Salman had to be supported to prevent him from collapsing under the pressure of standing for so long and shaking so many hands.
It is reasonable to assume that it was decided long before Abdullah’s death that Mohammed bin Nayef would become Deputy Crown Prince. This ended speculation about which grandson of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud would ascend the throne once all of his sons are formally dispatched to the other side. This, however, may not be the end of the story or power struggle in the artificial kingdom.
‘Abd al-‘Aziz sired 45 sons from 23 wives, of whom 36 survived past infancy. Six became kings: Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah and now Salman. If Muqrin survives Salman — and there is no guarantee of that since Abdullah dispatched two crown princes ahead of him to the grave — Sultan and Nayef — he would be the last son of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz to become king.
With the baton passed on to the next generation, Mohammed bin Nayef’s choice indicates the fear that grips the ruling family. He remains Interior Minister, the most important post in the Kingdom after the king himself. The Interior Minister, as the name suggests, controls the Kingdom’s internal affairs. He does more: he is also in charge of the Mabahith (intelligence department), the police, border security, customs, prisons as well as the mutawwas (the religious police). There is hardly a branch of government outside his control.
Why he got the nod over a number of other contenders can be explained by the fact that during his father’s tenure as Interior Minister, Mohammed was made in charge of security. He came down hard on all dissenters. Public beheadings were also widespread. In 2014, there were at least 80 people beheaded publicly. Torture is rampant in Saudi Arabia and there are at least 30,000 political prisoners. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long complained about abuse and torture of prisoners and the arbitrary nature of the Kingdom’s judicial system but to no avail.
While being interior minister is definitely helpful, especially at this critical juncture in the kingdom’s history given so much turmoil in the region, other royals were appointed crown princes without serving as interior ministers. These included Khalid and Abdullah (both became kings), Sultan and Nayef were defence and interior ministers respectively but both preceded Abdullah to the grave despite being younger and, therefore, did not get to be kings. Mohammed bin Nayef’s appointment as Deputy Crown Prince reflects deep nervousness in the ruling family. The Kingdom faces unprecedented challenges both internally and externally.
On the internal front, there is a serious challenge from intellectuals and human rights activists thousands of whom languish in Saudi dungeons. Some ‘ulama have also joined the opposition questioning the regime’s legitimacy especially in view of the ruling family’s subservience to imperialism and Zionism. This has been compounded by the threat posed by the takfiris. It is ironic that the Saudi regime and some segments within the establishment created and supported the takfiris to be used against the regime of Bashar al-Asad of Syria as well as in Iraq but they have grown so strong that they now pose a threat to the Kingdom itself. There is considerable support for the takfiris inside the Kingdom especially from within the religious establishment. Thus, it requires someone with Mohammed bin Nayef’s experience and ferocity to deal with them.
Like his father, Mohammed continued the brutal crackdown on internal dissent. His iron-fist policy won him plaudits from the British and the Americans. It is not surprising since he was trained by both the CIA and Scotland Yard (British police).
Soon after his appointment as Interior Minister in November 2012, Mohammed bin Nayef embarked on a well publicised visit to Britain and the US. British Prime Minister David Cameron received him at his official residence at 10 Downing Street in January 2013. A few days later, US President Barack Obama threw a White House dinner for him, an honour reserved for heads of state or government. This was a clear signal that both governments approved of him and his chances of becoming the future king were enhanced considerably.
Internally, there is deep resentment against the misrule and massive corruption of Bani Saud. Despite windfall oil income, although this has declined in recent months because of falling oil prices, unemployment is very high. More than 50% of Saudis do not own a house. Coupled with lack of opportunity for public participation or even the possibility of reform, the lava of resentment is building up and could potentially explode into a full blown rebellion. Abdullah’s death will merely add to this resentment because no reforms are anticipated in the foreseeable future. Perhaps, the Saudi royals think this requires someone with Mohammed bin Nayef’s stern hand to control. Suppression of legitimate dissent can have the opposite effect to what is intended.
The new king Salman — it just does not sound quite right after a decade of talking about King Abdullah! — made other pronouncements as well. He said the Kingdom would pursue the policies of his predecessors (no surprises there). He called these being on sirat al-mustaqeem (the straight path, as described in the Qur’an). There is no concept of kingship in Islam. Besides, Bani Saud has renamed the blessed land that the noble Messenger (pbuh) called the Arabian Peninsula as “Saudi” Arabia as if the family owns it. This amounts to shirk or at the very least a bid‘ah.
As long time governor of Riyadh province, Salman presided over the massive corruption of his brothers and nephews. He papered these over, with the BBC World Service (January 23) delicately calling him a “conciliatory figure.” When Salman said there would be no change in policy, perhaps he gave a green light to the army of Saudi royals to continue with their stealing but to just not rock the boat! Transitions, no matter how smoothly managed, are difficult affairs and can create unexpected problems. Saudi Arabia, mired in so many problems, is not exempt from this rule.
Totally artificial, the Kingdom is a British creation that was meant to serve British colonial interests.
Externally, the regime faces a serious threat from the takfiris in Syria and now Yemen has also slipped out of Saudi control. There are indications that even the Americans may have soured on them and the Germans announced a few days ago (January 25) that they would not supply arms to Saudi Arabia. They cited “volatility” in the region as the reason but this was a strong vote of no-confidence in the Saudi regime given the support the takfiris are receiving from important segments of the Saudi establishment.
Totally artificial, the Kingdom is a British creation that was meant to serve British colonial interests. The Kingdom’s founder, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud was a brigand who made a living by robbing pilgrims’ caravans going for Hajj and plundering other tribes. Little has changed in the intervening years. Only the method of robbery has become a little more sophisticated. The Kingdom is now a virtual American colony. This fact, known to many Saudis, is also a cause of deep resentment.
How long Bani Saud will remain in control of the artificial kingdom is difficult to predict but it cannot be too long. Events are fast slipping out of their control.
Editor’s note: from this issue onward, CI will no longer refer to the ruling class in Arabia as “Aal Saud” or the “House of Saud”; rather they will henceforth be referred to as “Bani Saud” to highlight the shared characteristics of exclusivism, racism, and chosen status privilege they have with their kissing cousins, Bani Israel.