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Nov 28, 2012 | 14:59 GMT

Saudi Arabia: King's Health and the New Line of Succession

Saudi Arabia: King's Rumored Death and the New Line of Succession
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/GettyImages
Summary

Update: Since the following analysis was published, Saudi King Abdullah, 88, has appeared on television for the first time since undergoing spinal surgery earlier this month, dispelling widely held rumors that he had been placed on life support following the procedure. The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television station aired what appeared to be live footage of the king receiving greetings from Saudi officials and drinking coffee.

Saudi King Abdullah has reportedly been placed on life support after having undergone spinal surgery the week of Nov. 18. His death would mark the end of the second generation of Saudi princes. Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz will succeed Abdullah, but the key issue is who will replace Salman as crown prince. The odds are now high that Salman's successor will come from the third generation of princes.

Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia's kings have appointed a second deputy prime minister that serves as a de facto crown prince-in-waiting. The previous two crown princes, former Defense Minister Sultan bin Abdulaziz and former Interior Minister Naif bin Abdulaziz, died in October 2011 and June 2012, respectively, and on neither occasion was a second deputy prime minister appointed. After Naif died, his younger brother Salman, who had take over as defense minister, was informally designated crown prince.

Saudi Kings and Key Princes

Saudi Kings and Key Princes

Naif, Sultan and Salman hail from the Sudairi clan. In theory, Salman could appoint Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the next in line in the Sudairi clan, as crown prince. However, appointing Ahmed is problematic for several reasons. His appointment would break the tradition of having two brothers as king and crown prince. The Sudairis have held a disproportionate amount of power since the 1970s, and other clans want some balance. Salman would not want to upset the balance of power within the royal family at such a critical moment in Saudi Arabia's history. Moreover, Ahmed is technically unqualified for the position of crown prince: Naif's son Mohammed bin Naif recently replaced Ahmed as the interior minister.

In fact, there are only a few second-generation princes alive who have the qualifications to become crown prince. Former intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz appears to be a suitable candidate. He is the youngest surviving son of the founder of the modern kingdom, was recently named a top adviser to the king and reportedly is in good health. However, the fact that his mother is Yemeni renders his appointment questionable.

Another possibility is Prince Sattam bin Abdulaziz, a longtime deputy governor of Riyadh province, who became governor when Salman took over as defense minister in October 2011. But Sattam is too uncharismatic and too inexperienced to be heir apparent. 

Available Options

With so few options from the second generation, third-generation princes now have a greater chance to become crown prince — a critical evolution in the Saudi dynasty. Stratfor sources have reported that someone from the al-Faisal clan could be appointed as crown prince. Among the options are Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, his brother Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was the kingdom's longest serving intelligence chief, and their half-brother Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca.

Saud is very ill and is unlikely to be appointed. Turki's career ended when he resigned as ambassador to the United Kingdom after a spat with King Abdullah. That leaves Khalid, who is considered a strong contender for the position. He shares a lineage with the founder of Wahhabism, and his tenure in Mecca has endeared him to the religious establishment. Considered a pragmatic official, Khalid is well respected within the kingdom.

Khalid's appointment is far from assured. Also in contention for the post is Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, one of King Abdullah's sons, who heads the Saudi Arabian National Guard. But one likely trend is emerging amid all the uncertainty: The next crown prince could very well come from the third generation, and he will become king of Saudi Arabia when Salman is dead.

What this means is that the number of potential crown princes — and therefore, kings — has grown, and the old ways of huddling together and deciding succession no longer work. This is why Abdullah decreed a succession law in 2006 that created the Allegiance Council, which is supposed to elect the king and the crown prince. The problem is that this system assumes a basic democratic tradition among the royal family; such a tradition has never existed, and there is no reason to assume that one will exist in the near future.

As a result, there will be an added potential for rifts among the various House of Saud clans and with them the risk of instability in the world's biggest oil exporter. Given the uncertainty brought on by the Arab Spring, that risk could spread throughout the region.

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