King Fahd's death yesterday after a long illness marks only the beginning of the beginning of a complex succession struggle within Saudi Arabia's royal family, where the immediate future appears stable and carefully planned but the middle distance appears fogged by unresolved problems of personality, power-sharing and generational change.
As difficult for outsiders to decipher as the inner workings of the old Soviet Kremlin, the Saudi royal court is dominated by about a half-dozen powerful brothers and half brothers who range in age from about 69 to about 82. Yesterday those brothers and their family factions overcame their rivalries to unify in the cause of the Saud family's continued power on the Arabian Peninsula, taking pains in both symbol and substance to create an orderly succession.
The government's Information Ministry simultaneously announced Fahd's death and a two-part succession. The immediate elevation of Crown Prince Abdullah to be the new king quashed speculation that he might not have adequate support within the royal family. Abdullah's simultaneous appointment of Prince Sultan as his crown prince and deputy showed there was no immediate split among the family's competing branches, Saudi and Western analysts said.
"The succession, the way it happened, it gave everyone a feeling of assurance," Khalid Batarfi, managing editor of the al-Madina newspaper, said yesterday by telephone from Jiddah. The Saudi stock market held relatively firm and the streets remained quiet, he said. "There were no surprises."
But Saudis and outsiders will be carefully watching for other intriguing developments over the next few months, looking for clues about stability and individual ambition within the royal family, as well as for signs of broader political change in Saudi Arabia.
The Saud family has governed the kingdom for more than seven decades as an absolute monarchy that derives its legitimacy from its clergy's interpretations of Islam. It has permitted little political breathing space as it manages the world's largest proven reserves of oil. Its founding monarch, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, acknowledged marrying more than 200 times and left 36 known sons -- including Fahd, Abdullah and Sultan -- and 21 known daughters, according to Joseph A. Kechichian, author of "Succession in Saudi Arabia."
Key Appointment Open
In the parlor game of succession, an immediate question is who, if anyone, will follow Sultan as second deputy prime minister, effectively the number three position in the kingdom. Because Abdullah and Sultan have both suffered from ill health and are believed by Western analysts to be about 82 and 81 respectively, a new number three could expect to move up to the throne fairly quickly.
Because there is no known consensus within the royal family about who should follow Sultan -- indeed, there is rampant speculation about rivalries and unresolved ambitions -- Saudi officials and outside analysts suggest the post might be left vacant indefinitely.
Such procrastination would be consistent with the family's past patterns of decision-making, a process of slow consensus-building that is often forced to resolution only by a sudden crisis.
"Who will be the third man?" asked Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. "This is the big question, and this is where the real problems will start."
The decision about a successor to Sultan "will most probably trigger a series of personal and policy clashes between a future King Abdullah and a future Heir Apparent Sultan," Kechichian predicted in his 2001 book, the only recent examination of such issues based on extensive interviews with Saudi officials.
The conflict in part will involve how Abdullah and Sultan maneuver to favor their sons over those of rival brothers, in Kechichian's view. "The positioning that both men practice -- which is already an art form in the kingdom -- could have severe consequences for the al-Saud family," he wrote.
Abdullah and Sultan have both appointed sons as deputies in the powerful ministries they have controlled for the last several decades. A younger Abdullah holds a commanding position at the National Guard, and one of Sultan's sons has a key role at the Defense Ministry.
In a royal family where nearly all senior members have become very rich, some vastly so, Sultan has been an unusually persistent magnet for allegations of corruption, in part because his Defense Ministry has been involved in multibillion-dollar weapons deals involving webs of offshore companies and large, opaque transactions. As crown prince, Abdullah developed a reputation for relative frugality and tried to make government contracting more professional and transparent. Yet despite what Saudi officials and outside analysts describe as occasional sharp tensions between Abdullah and Sultan over contracting issues, the pair never broke openly.
A Contentious Minister
The jockeying for the number three slot hinges on one question of particular significance for the United States: whether Prince Nayef, a younger full brother of Sultan and Saudi Arabia's often outspoken and controversial interior minister, will try to get in line for the throne.
Believed by Western analysts to be about 72, Nayef has controlled the kingdom's police and internal security forces for three decades, building a powerful political empire now largely managed by his son, Mohammed bin Nayef.
A proud and at times prickly man who has adamantly defended Saudi prerogatives in negotiations with the West as interior minister, Nayef frustrated American intelligence and police investigators during the 1990s by blocking access to Saudi interrogations and police files, according to U.S. officials who worked with him.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Nayef created more controversy by declaring publicly that he did not believe Saudis were among the hijackers and speculating aloud that the attacks were a Zionist conspiracy. More recently he has backed away from those assertions, and since a wave of al Qaeda-related attacks in the kingdom began in May 2003, his ministry has cooperated more closely than ever with the United States. Still, given his reputation for suspicion of the West, Nayef's possible ascension to the throne is a subject of active discussion and concern within Western governments.
A consequence of the unresolved succession issues is that Abdullah will make only limited gains in authority by assuming the throne, analysts say. Like every Saudi king after Faisal, who was assassinated in 1975, Abdullah governs less as an absolute monarch and more as a "first among equals" in a guardian council of senior brothers, said Gregory Gause, a professor at the University of Vermont who has followed Saudi politics for many years.
Clique of Brothers
Abdullah's authority is also seen as constrained because his mother came from a northern tribe that went to war against the Saud family early in the last century. Surrounding him in the senior councils of the royal court is a clique of seven full brothers, previously referred to as the "Sudeiri Seven" after their common mother, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudeiri.
These brothers are now six, as Fahd was among them; the others include Nayef and Salman, the longtime governor of Riyadh, as well as one of the youngest brothers with an active role in government, Prince Ahmad, the deputy interior minister, who is in his mid-sixties and is seen by Saudis and outside analysts as a strong contender for the throne in the future.
Saudi dissidents express hope that fissures among these factions will finally break the royal family's remarkably long and resilient hold on power. "The royal family members do not trust each other," said Saad Faqih, a London-based former physician and longtime Islamic activist who is one of the current leadership's most outspoken opponents. "It might go on for a year or two, but it has to come to a point of clash."
Over the years, however, the royal family has often closed ranks in the face of such outside and internal pressures. The family's conservative and deeply religious politics have held firm, reinforced by the billions of dollars that began to flow to them annually from oil sales. With oil prices touching $60 a barrel today, a similar pattern appears to be unfolding.
Pressure for Change
Yet the royal family has come under intense pressure to change as the country's population swells, jobs remain scarce and Saudis increasingly wired to the rest of the world grow restive for opportunities to govern themselves. It has so far responded by moving toward reform at a creeping pace that resembles the slow, halting shuffle of its aged leaders.
Saudi Arabia's dependence today on a generation of septuagenarian brothers and half brothers who seem congenitally cautious about politics is a consequence of the serial marriages and decision-making of the founding monarch, Abdul Aziz.
As he neared death in 1953, Abdul Aziz apparently feared -- with justification, as it turned out -- that his eldest surviving son, Saud, might not be able to handle being king and would require help from his next-youngest brother, Faisal. To forge a union between them, Abdul Aziz designated Faisal as Saud's heir and set the precedent that power would pass laterally from older brother to younger brother until there were no more, rather than down from father to eldest son.
None of Abdul Aziz's succession rules was written down or codified, creating a climate of uncertainty and occasional conflict. In 1992, King Fahd promulgated what became known as the Basic Law, a quasi-constitutional document that formally established the principle of brotherly succession but also gave kings the power to appoint and dismiss their crown princes. That appeared to make it possible for one of the brothers, backed by enough of the family, to finally leap down a generation and appoint a younger man as immediate heir to the throne.
Such a generational leap down is often discussed and occasionally advocated by Saudi political reformers. But many analysts see it as unlikely anytime soon, because it would be very difficult to forge a consensus about which branch of the family should benefit from the leap, and because there are still 23 brothers younger than Sultan who might wish to one day become king.