When the death of a leading Royal takes place such as the recent death of Crown Prince Nayef or the earlier passing of Crown Prince Sultan, the Royal family is very good at circling the wagons in an impenetrable force of privacy and solace.
The Family has little time to grieve the loss of a loved family member because at the same time they have to appear united, calm and firm that the Kingdom remains under the Al Saud control and impervious to external threats.
The legacy of today’s Saudi Arabia began in 1902 when 22 year old Abdulaziz ibn Saud led a group of 50 armed men from Kuwait and in a daring night ride, seized control of Riyadh from the tribe of Rashid.
It was not until 1912 when ibn Saud inaugurated the Ikhwan (brethren), a religious brotherhood of neighborhood tribes and tasked them to conquer the rest of Arabia in the name of Wahhibism that ibn Saud’s power was seen as a governing force.
After this period, ibn Saud developed alliances in regions of the Kingdom through marriages or in some cases, pardons. Additionally, ibn Saud realized that the Ikhwan were spiraling out of control and defeated them at the battle of Sabila in 1929.
In September 1932 ibn Saud formally declared himself the King of Saudi Arabia. By that time he had sired 44 sons, 35 of whom survived him after his death.
Towards consolidating his role and leadership, ibn Saud assigned only his sons to government roles further cementing the dynasty and legacy of Al Saud. Ibn Saud spread his family throughout the Kingdom in order to extend his control.
Passing of the Kingdom began its path from brother to brother. It was not always a smooth and tranquil process in the early history. For example, in 1964 Crown Prince Faisal challenged his brother Saud’s ability to adequately lead Saudi Arabia. After a showdown between Saud’s Royal guard and Crown Prince Faisal’s National Guard, Saud ultimately abdicated and went into exile while Faisal took charge over the Kingdom.
Faisal’s reign as King came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated by a 26 year old nephew in 1975. Faisal’s death came as a double shock when it was learned a member of the family was responsible.
With Faisal’s death, Khalid came to reign. This again assured that leadership was overseen by one of the many brothers. Khalid has a reputation of being less focused of a King and preferred to defer key issues to his brother, Fahd, the Crown Prince. Key events during Khalid’s reign included the fall of the Shah of Iran and the 1979 seige of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
During this same period, Abdullah, today’s present King, became the Commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. This is also the same time when Khalid seemed to be plagued by ill health instilling rumors there would again be changes to the throne.
Due to Khalid’s ill health, discussions took place during which Crown Prince Fahd planned to appointment Abdullah as Crown Prince after the death of King Khalid but only if Abdullah were willing to give up oversight of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Due to the power held with oversight of the Saudi Arabia National Guard, Abdullah rejected this proposal. The Saudi Arabian National Guard personnel are recruited from tribes known to be loyal to the Al Saud family and guard the key infrastructure and oil sites throughout the Kingdom.
Khalid died in 1982 and as expected, Fahd became King. Abdullah then became Crown Prince. However, the dynamics which had taken place with the attempt to take control of the Saudi Arabian National Guard from Abdullah left him with a distrust of Fahd and some of his true brothers.
Fahd’s health began to deteriorate in 1995 and Abdullah began to take over more of the leading responsibilities. However, rival princes aiming for the throne denied Abdullah any legitimacy to the title. Finally, in August 2005, Fahd’s death was announced.
Abdullah became King and appointed Sultan as Crown Prince. However, unlike those before him, he did not appoint a second deputy prime minister. It is widely believed this move was made to block the Princes of the Sudairi lineage from the throne. Furthermore, in 2006, Abdullah established the Allegiance Council which could confirm a new Crown Prince and confirm a new King if either became incapacitated.
On succession, the King relies on other Princes to confirm his position by swearing an oath of allegiance. Concurrently, the ulema must also declare the new King an Imam. This dual approval further authenticates the close relationship between the House of Saud and Wahhabism.
Abdullah remains King and Salman has now moved to the position of Crown Prince. This leaves the following senior princes to be viewed as future contenders given their positions and lineage: Mitab, Abdulrahman, Ahmad, Sattam and Miqrim.
Today, with Abdullah in his late 80’s and Salman in his late 70’s there remains concern on how long either Royal can remain in good health. If either’s health fails, would one be replaced with yet another ailing brother or would a provision be made allowing succession to skip to the next generation thereby offering a younger Royal who can keep the Kingdom in a position of stability.
The sons of King Faisal such as Saud, Khalid and Turki are recognized as competent leaders. However, these men are also plagued by health issues, particularly Prince Saud who continues his position as Minister of Foreign Affairs with zest in spite of the Parkinson’s Disease which has ravaged his body.
The other key group of Princes to consider are the sons of Abdullah, Sultan, Nayef and Salman. One could easily say Prince Mitab, Abdullah’s son, has been groomed for the future role of King since he took over control of the Saudi Arabian National Guard in 2009. Who he has the Guard has control and loyalty.
Other names which arise as contenders to the throne are Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Prince Alwaleed Al Talal. Neither of these two princes has a Saudi mother yet they are both credited with foresight and modernity.
Saudi Arabia’s key leadership is facing a transition at a critical time in history. The younger generation of Saudi Arabia is prepared to take a stance for social changes in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia also faces the continuation of the Arab Spring around its borders and at a point to form new strategic alliances.
This is a new era of relationships and alliances between Saudi Arabia and the world. It will be imperative for Saudi Arabia to ensure a period of consistency and stability among its highest leadership in order to retain consensus in the Kingdom.