THE BLOG

A Saudi Game of Musical Chairs

The death of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Ibn Abdul-Aziz could not have come at a better time for Saudi Arabia. The world is simply too busy with the graphic murder of Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya to notice the 86-year-old passing away.

Oil prices were unaffected by his death, and most analysts predict a smooth replacement after his body arrives for burial from New York, where he died last weekend. King Abdullah will have room to maneuver quietly away from media attention as he selects a new heir to the Saudi throne.

With the Prince Sultan's death, two posts are now vacant in Saudi Arabia; that of crown prince and defense minister, which he held since 2005 and 1962 respectively. For all practical purposes, King Abdullah's younger brother Prince Nayef, 78, is the next in line for the throne.

Nayef, a conservative Muslim, was appointed second deputy prime minister in 2009, a position usually reserved for whoever is third in line to the throne. Nayef had held the post of interior minister since 1975 and managed the kingdom's daily affairs in the 1990s with Abdullah, who at the time was crown prince and de facto monarch during the prolonged illness of his brother, King Fahd.

Nayef is close to the powerful clergy in Saudi Arabia and a ruthless opponent of both al Qaeda and Iran, which makes him a natural favorite for the United States, Saudi Arabia's unwavering ally. The final say, however, will be for the Allegiance Council that King Abdullah set up in 2006, bringing 34 members of the ruling family under one umbrella to decide on any incoming heir apparent.

It currently consists of 15 brothers of King Abdullah and 15 grandsons of the kingdom's founder King Abdul-Aziz (the father of Abdullah, Sultan and Nayef). Each member of the council will vote for whoever the king nominates, or put up a nominee of their own, from the sons of King Abdul-Aziz.

The defense minister in waiting.

The issue of defense minister is less certain, as King Abdullah has to make a delicate choice to avoid angering what remains of his aged and ailing brothers and more importantly, their ambitious sons and grandsons.

Over the past 50 years, Saudi Arabia has had five monarchs, but only one defense minister. That post is of particular importance not only to Saudi Arabia but to the U.S., which relies heavily on Riyadh for military cooperation in the Gulf and a defense budget of U.S.$34 billion spent largely on U.S. arms and equipment.

One strong minister hopeful is the current Deputy Minister Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, who is the eldest son of the late crown prince. Prince Khaled, aged 62, was trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in the United Kingdom, along with Arab royals like Jordan's late King Hussein and Oman's Sultan Qaboos Bin Said.

He then underwent further training at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, graduating from the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He became commander of the joint forces in the first Gulf war in the early 1990s, and then retired from the military for an entire decade where he worked in business, returning in 2001 as deputy defense minister.

During his time in business, Khaled was heavily involved in managing al-Hayat, the London-based daily newspaper he bought in 1990 from the family of its founder and publisher, Kamel Mroueh. Two years ago, he led the Saudi military campaign against the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, where 130 Saudi casualties were recorded, along with over 1,000 Yemenis.

All previous Saudi kings and crown princes began their reign in their late 50s or early 60s, with the exception of King Abdullah, who was 82. The kingdom's founder Abdul-Aziz, for example, was 50 in 1926. His successor King Saud was 31 when he became crown prince in 1933. King Faisal was 47 when became crown prince in 1953, while King Khaled was 52 when he became heir to the throne in 1965.

Prince Nayef today is in his mid-70s, raising questions on whether he will outlive the king, or die before him as the case with Sultan. Both of them, after all, are way past retirement age and reportedly not in the best of health. The grandsons of the founder, King Abd al-Aziz, whose rights to the throne were recognized in March 1992 by King Fahd himself, are mostly middle-aged.

In fact, many in the royal family who had their eyes set on the throne had kept Fahd alive since 1995 for one reason: they hoped that Abdullah would die before him. And this was precisely the case with Prince Sultan's entourage, who hoped that King Abdullah would die before his crown prince. But actually, the exact opposite happened, for the first time in Saudi Arabia.

Given the advanced age and medical condition of the first generation of Saudi royals, it is likely that a king will die every two or three years as what remains of King Abdul-Aziz's children take their turn on the throne. As the crown is passed on, prosperity, stability and reforms will likely be slow.

While this might have been accepted in the past, it is now dangerous due to the snowballing Arab Spring. Two of Saudi Arabia's neighbors, Jordan and Yemen, are already being rocked by the Arab Spring, although in totally different magnitude. Fifty-percent of Saudi youth are under the age of 18.

They are seeing Arab regimes fall all around them and this undoubtedly is awakening their appetite for change. This generation, like that of other Arabs in the Arab world, wants reforms and modernization, and they want it fast. King Abdullah is a wise man who grabbed at the signals reaching him from Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, wanting to avoid the fate of his friend Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zein Al-Abidin Bin Ali, who he has hosted in Saudi Arabia since toppled by the Tunisian revolt in January.

King Abdullah ordered a massive increase in spending, up to $130 billion over the next decade, on measures like affordable housing for young Saudis. Although critics accused him of either bribing his citizens or giving too much away, Abdullah was adamant, arguing that he knew what it takes to keep young Saudis happy.

Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter have completely revolutionized not only Saudi Arabia but the Arab and Muslim World at large, he argued, and now was the time for pre-emptive action. Ruling Saudi Arabia in the manner that has prevailed since the 1930s will be difficult for any monarch as the world advances into the 21st century.

This is the real challenge that King Abdullah may not live long enough to face, but one which will be facing Prince Nayef, who by all accounts is stubborn and autocratic, as he rises to the post of crown prince this week.

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Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article appeared in Asia Times Online on October 24, 2011