JNN 28 Dec 2010 : Rex mortuus est, vivat rex! The king is dead; long live the king! For thousands of years, in monarchies across the globe, that phrase has heralded the end of one era and the beginning of another.
It is difficult for people in democracies, who elect a new chief executive every few years, to appreciate the true import of those words. But in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies, a new king is in the process of being ushered into office while his predecessor remains very much alive. And despite the ambiguity of the situation, whoever eventually occupies the Saudi throne will dramatically affect not only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), but the entire Mideast.
In order to fully grasp the situation, we must first understand the Saudi system of succession, which is somewhat different from that of most monarchies. Many of us are familiar with the law of primogeniture, on which the succession of most monarchs is based. According to that law, when a king dies, his eldest son inherits the throne and if that son dies without issue, the king’s next oldest son inherits and so forth.
The Saudi monarchy, however, operates in a different manner. In the Kingdom, the order of succession (which is determined within and by the House of Saud), has been, so far, limited to the sons of the dynasty’s original founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, who established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Since his death in 1953, five of his sons, Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah have, in turn, occupied the throne. Thus, to date, no one but Ibn Saud and his sons has yet been king.
Upon the death of King Fahd and the ascension to the throne of the present monarch, King Abdullah (in 2005), their younger brother, Sultan became heir apparent or crown prince. At 82 years of age, Prince Sultan is not much younger than the 86-year-old king. And considering the fact that the prince is believed to be suffering from cancer (in 2004 he was diagnosed with colon cancer), there is no guarantee that he will ever rule.
Of Abdul Aziz’s many sons, 20 are still alive, so King Abdullah and Prince Sultan have 18 brothers. Most of them, however, are either too old to rule, or lack the experience to do so, which leaves only two brothers, who are considered eligible. They are 77-year-old Nayef and 71-year-old Salman.
And that brings us to the controversy surrounding Prince Nayef. As the second in line after the ailing crown prince, Nayef, who now serves as Second Deputy Prime Minister (and since 1975, as Minister of the Interior), is believed by many to be the one, who will eventually occupy the Saudi throne. But unlike the moderate Abdullah, Nayef is known to be a pro-Wahhabist and one of the most conservative members of the royal family – which has given many of the more tolerant elements in the Mideast cause for worry.
In fact, according to a 2003 New York Times article, the Minister of the Interior’s promotion of extremist elements in the past was sufficiently extensive to sound the alarm in Washington and prompt US Senator Charles E. Schumer (Democrat of New York) to write a letter to then Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, asking that Nayef be removed from office due to his “well-documented history of suborning terrorist financing and ignoring the evidence when it comes to investigating terrorist attacks on Americans.”
If those, in the inner political circles are to be believed, the ‘leopard has not changed his spots.’ As a diplomat, well-acquainted with the inner workings of the Kingdom, who preferred (for obvious reasons) to remain anonymous, recently observed, “He (Nayef) is a conservative who will give more rope to the religious establishment than any of his brothers would,” which, if true, bodes ill for internal reforms and foreign relations, alike.
Moreover, Abdullah’s ongoing reforms aimed at solving the country’s unemployment problems and curbing extremism by improving education, making it easier for women to work and retraining sharia judges, will probably be abandoned.
Those reform programs appear to have already given the economy a jump-start. According to an article on the NASDAQ website, they have “opened up sectors of the economy previously barred to private investors, led to the privatization of some big state companies and included development of the capital markets.”
Such improvements will most likely be stopped in their tracks if Nayef becomes king, because the prince has, since his appointment as interior minister, 35 years ago, gained a reputation for maintaining close ties with Wahhabists (a powerful group of religious extremists), who are strongly opposed to such changes. And as author Steffen Hertog, who wrote a book about Saudi internal politics, titledPrinces, Brokers and Bureaucrats, pointed out, Nayef has already obstructed some (economic) reforms in his role as Interior Minister.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that he will be the next king. “It looks more plausible than not that Nayef will become the crown prince after Abdullah dies and he is already taking more control in the day-to-day running of the kingdom,” Hertog observed.
Institute for (Persian) Gulf Affairs (IGA) Director, Ali al-Ahmad, agrees. In a recent interview with Press TV, he said, “It is true that a name, Crown Prince Sultan, for example, is in Riyadh, but he is not meeting people and he is not issuing policy.”
“It is the third man, Nayef, who is traveling and attending Arab Countries’ on the (Persian) Gulf meetings … He is the one, who is issuing policy and orders.”
The official went on to explain that Abdullah, due to his age and infirmities (caused by his recent surgery), is out of the picture, and there are strong doubts as to whether Sultan, who is also elderly and suffers from poor health, will ever ascend the throne. So that leaves Nayef, who is actually running the country. Ahmed went on to say that he believes the prince will use the present circumstances to “spread his power and influence to make sure that he becomes the king of Saudi Arabia,” possibly, within a matter of months.
But what will happen when – and if – this pro-Wahhabi prince actually does become king?
Well, firstly, it will probably help strengthen the monarchy and the House of Saud among conservative Saudi elements. Within the past decades, the royal family has, on various occasions, drawn criticism from Sunni conservatives – not only for the excess of some of its members, but for attempts by several of its monarchs to introduce modernization and tolerance.
Therefore, since much of the dynasty’s raison d’etre stems from its affiliation with Wahhabism and its role as the guardian of Sunni orthodoxy, a conservative, pro-Wahhabi king would, in the eyes of many Saudis, exonerate the House of Saud and entrench it more firmly than ever.
At the same time, Nayef at the governmental helm would only serve to dash the hopes of both the country’s women and its Shia population. Shias, a long-suppressed minority in Saudi Arabia, could most likely anticipate further suppression – possibly to the point of persecution. And this treatment would be based on the prevalent political climate at a given time. If the Kingdom were embroiled in a conflict with Shias in another country, Shias in Saudi Arabia would probably feel the effects in a new wave of suppression and/or persecution.
As far as Saudi women are concerned, the meager gains they have made du
ring Abdullah’s reign would most likely be forfeited. What else could they expect from a ruler, who, according to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a US think tank), publicly stated a month after King Abdullah’s announced appointment of the first female deputy minister, that he saw no need for either elections or female members of parliament?
It might be mentioned at this point that Saudi Arabia, as an absolute monarchy, does not even possess a parliament. Instead it has a consultative ‘Shura Council,’ which is made up of exclusively male members appointed by the king. And the closest thing the Kingdom has ever had to elections, was a series of limited polls (for male participants, only), held in 2005 for some municipal councils.
An ultra-conservative on the throne of the world’s biggest oil producer will also undoubtedly affect the country’s foreign relations, which will be felt first – and most strongly – throughout the already precarious Middle East. For starters, we can probably anticipate further Saudi interference in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, three countries, in which Shias have gained a foothold.
On the other hand, there is a possibility that none of these scenarios will pan out. Despite Nayef’s hard-line reputation, historians say that Saudi leaders have always been pragmatists in their actual dealings, giving stability priority over ideology.
And according to Hertog, Nayef’s conservatism is overstated. “As king you have to take different policy positions than as interior minister,” the expert said, “because you have a different constituency.” He went on to explain that Nayef’s opposition to reform “might have been due to security concerns and bureaucratic infighting rather than an ideological dispute.”
There is a basis for such reasoning. Saudi Arabia is vulnerable security-wise, as assassinations and terrorist attempts in the past have demonstrated. And the rivalry and rifts within the royal family are well-known.
So what will actually happen when Saudi Arabia gains a new king? We can only guess.