Kingdom at crossroads
Speculation in Saudi Arabia is growing over who will succeed the ailing King Abdullah, writes Salah Nasrawi
For more than two weeks now Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz has been battling for his life. As the days pass, there is growing concern surrounding the inevitable power struggle between members of the Saudi royal family.
Abdullah was admitted to a military hospital in the capital Riyadh on 31 December for medical tests. A statement from the court two days later said the king was suffering from pneumonia and needed help breathing.
Though the statement described the condition of the 91-year-old monarch, whose health has been in decline for years, as being stable, international attention has focused on the expected power shift in the oil-rich kingdom.
With Abdullah hospitalised, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, who is also the first deputy prime minister and minister of defence, appears to have taken taking charge of the day-to-day running of the government.
Last week the 80-year-old prince delivered the monarch’s traditional address to the Shura Council, an advisory body whose members are appointed by the king. Salman warned that Saudi Arabia is facing unprecedented challenges resulting from several regional conflicts, but assured Saudis that their “leadership is aware of these challenges and their consequences.”
With wars raging in neighbouring Iraq and Yemen and lower oil prices casting a shadow over domestic policies, Salman sought to reassure Saudis that the government is responding to the critical position the country now finds itself in.
On 5 January, four gunmen attacked a Saudi security patrol near the Iraqi border, killing three soldiers and wounding at least three more. The daring assault was the first deadly attack on Saudi Arabia since it joined the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS) militants.
Plummeting oil prices are the kingdom’s other major challenge. In his speech, Salman said Saudi Arabia will deal with the challenge posed by lower oil prices “with a firm will.” The collapse in the price of oil has raised the alarm about the prospect of budget cuts that could impact the kingdom’s policy of “buying loyalty.”
Abdullah’s failing health, the crown prince’s old age, as well as the unpredictable generational turnover in the leadership, have raised concerns about the future of the kingdom in the face of domestic and regional threats.
Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005 as the country’s sixth king and named his half-brother, defence minister Sultan, as crown prince.
When Sultan died in 2011, Abdullah named another half-brother, Nayef, the minister of the interior, as heir apparent.
The current crown prince, Salman, was appointed in 2012 after the death of Nayef in 2012. He is 80 years old and believed to be suffering from dementia.
According to Saudi tradition, and unlike in most other monarchies where sons usually inherit the throne, the monarchy passes down the line of sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdel-Aziz ibn Saud, who died in 1953.
While age was the main qualification for succession, Abdel-Aziz’s older sons were sometimes passed over due to their low profile or a lack of the ability or willingness to take on the role.
As most of Abdel-Aziz’s 45 sons have now either died or are aging, the unstable and unprecedented conditions confronting Saudi Arabia today have come as the prolonged hold of this second generation comes to an end.
In March, Abdullah took Saudis and the world by surprise by naming his youngest half-brother, Mugrin, as deputy heir. In a royal decree, Abdullah also prevented Salman from rescinding the move. The successor is traditionally picked by the new king. Abdullah’s early appointment of a deputy heir left long-time observers of Saudi politics puzzled.
The appointment of Mugrin as second heir has prompted speculation about Abdullah’s intentions. Though there has been no public dissent, rumours on social media abound about strains within the House of Saud over Mugrin’s nomination, casting doubt on prospects for a smooth handover of power.
In addition to the generational problem and the imminent passing of the elder royal power-holders, there are other factors central to the Saudi succession.
The origin of the mother also plays a role in choosing a successor, as is the tradition in Arab tribal societies. While Abdullah’s mother belonged to a powerful Saudi clan, Salman’s mother was a member of the prominent Sudairi tribe and also gave birth to Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahd, and former crown princes Sultan and Nayef.
While a remaining Sudairi, Ahmed bin Abdel-Aziz, a former interior minister, could still be considered a contender for the throne, Mugrin’s status could also be challenged because his mother was Yemeni.
All this has raised the question of why Abdullah chose Mugrin as deputy crown prince and sidestepped the Allegiance Council, an official body tasked with choosing the crown prince. Some rumours have suggested the move was designed to pave the way for Abdullah’s eldest son, Mitab, to become crown prince after Salman dies or abdicates.
Abdullah promoted Mitab to minister of the National Guard in 2013 and made him a member of the cabinet. The National Guard is a formidable force in Saudi Arabia and is larger and better equipped than the regular army.
He also appointed another of his sons deputy foreign minister and two other sons provincial governors of the capital Riyadh and the holy city of Mecca, moves seen as an attempt to enable his children to consolidate their grip on power after his death.
Whether Abdullah is grooming Mitab or simply trying to arrange for an orderly transition, his appointments have suggested that it is virtually impossible to assess the dynamics of the Saudi succession struggle and the kingdom’s future political evolution without analysing the role of the third generation in politics.
Whoever becomes the next Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines is likely to name his own brothers as future heirs, thereby cutting out multiple cousins from access to the throne and the political advantages it provides.
Based on this analysis there are several possible scenarios for succession in the post-Abdullah era, during which the incoming leadership could serve as the facilitator of political, social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia.
One possibility is that the succession will go smoothly, with Salman becoming the new king and Mugrin his successor, but with Salman not appointing Mitab as second deputy, a post traditionally his in the succession line.
Another scenario is that Salman may wish to nominate his own crown prince after taking the throne. He could either name his brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdel-Aziz, the youngest Sudairi who was removed as interior minister in 2012, or one of his own sons as heir apparent.
A third scenario is for both Abdullah and Salman to abdicate and for the Mugrin-Mitab plan to be implemented but with a powerful Sudairi, such as interior minister Mohammad bin Nayef, nominated as deputy crown prince. This scenario envisions that both Abdullah and Salman would agree to abdicate or would both be declared unfit by the Allegiance Council.
But many in Saudi Arabia anticipate an uneasy transition following the deaths of Abdullah and Salman. One main problem is that a fraught succession could lead to sharp divisions within the House of Saud and ignite a power struggle.
The next leaders of the country will also have to deal with serious challenges internally and externally. Inside the country they will face threats from Islamist Sunni militants. There is a high risk of attacks similar to the assault on the border with Iraq, or the November attack on a Shia mosque in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, which killed five people.
They will have to cope with increasing Shia resentment against exclusion and discrimination. In recent months, clashes between the members of the Saudi Shia community and security forces in the Eastern Province have left many people, including policemen and activists, dead.
Tensions rose in October when a Saudi court sentenced the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr to death for encouraging “foreign meddling” in the kingdom, “disobeying” its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces.
Significant drops in revenues due to sliding oil prices have forced the government to cut spending. The state budget for 2015 has registered a $39 billion deficit and the growth forecast for 2015 is expected to be down to 2.5 from last year’s 3.6 per cent.
Though the government has said the deficit this year will be covered by its huge foreign reserves, the financial pressures will force Saudi Arabia to cut back on salaries, wages and allowances, which contribute to about half of budgeted expenditures.
That could spark resentment among low-income families, who make up a majority of the population and are increasingly struggling to make ends meet.
Ostensibly, there is common agreement between Saudis and Saudi watchers that the succession of either Salman or Mugrin will go forward. In the long run, however, the emerging leadership faces the problem of managing the transition of power to the new generation.