Experts raise speculation over succession after Saudi king falls ill

Prof. Teitelbaum to ‘Post’: Saudi successions are usually smooth. The royal family knows that succession battles can be devastating and will do everything to avoid one.

January 5, 2015 03:53
3 minute read.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks before a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry (not pictured) at his private residence in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is suffering from pneumonia and temporarily needed help to breath through a tube on Friday, increasing speculation on who could succeed him. 

The procedure was successful and his condition is now stable, the royal court said.

“Saudi successions are usually smooth. The royal family knows that succession battles can be devastating and will do everything to avoid one.” Professor Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on the modern Middle East at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), told The Jerusalem Post.

The elderly monarch was admitted to the King Abdulaziz Medical City in Riyadh on Wednesday for tests after he suffered what one source described as breathing difficulties, state media said.

King Abdullah, who took power in 2005 after the death of his half-brother King Fahd, is thought to be 91, although official accounts are unclear. He has undergone surgery in the past few years related to a herniated disc.

Abdullah named his half-brother, Prince Salman, 13 years his junior, heir apparent in June 2012 after the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz. Last year he appointed Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as deputy crown prince, giving some assurance on the kingdom's long-term succession process.

"King Abdullah has played his cards well. Crown Prince Salman, at 78, is rumored to be in poor health. His successor, deputy crown prince Muqrin is younger and will be able to rule for longer,” explained Teitelbaum.

“It is likely that Abdullah made a deal with Muqrin to appoint Abdullah’s son, Mit’ib, who is Minister and Commander of the National Guard, as his crown prince,” continued Teitelbaum.

Simon Henderson, the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in an article last week that visitors to Prince Salman “report that after a few minutes of conversation, he becomes incoherent.”

“The fact that Salman appears in public at all is attributed to his determination to become king - or, more likely, the ambition of his closest relatives that he should do so,” said Henderson.

And regarding Muqrin, he says that the appointment was controversial and not unanimous.

Eran Segal, an associate researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told the Post that since Muqrin is the youngest son of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz, known as Ibn Saud, his nomination probably means that the next in line must come from "the third generation" or “Ibn Saud’s grandchildren.”

“This is the main reason, to my mind, for the incoherence in Saudi policy in the last years as the struggle grew more intense,” he said.

The system was relatively clear in regards to Ibn Saud's sons, he said, but “regarding the next generation they should create a new system that will be clear and guarantee a relatively smooth succession.”

In an article for BESA back in 2011, Teitelbaum foresaw much of the issues that are coming to the fore now as the succession issue gains steam.

“Prince Mit’ib’s status comes from being his father’s right-hand man in the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). A graduate of Sandhurst, Britain’s Royal Military Academy, he has been involved with SANG – which receives US training – for most of his adult life.”

With Abdullah’s help, Mit’ib has supervised SANG’s expansion under a massive deal, which the US approved in November 2010, said Teitelbaum.

“The new positions created by the arms deal and the prestige of owning so much modern weaponry will strengthen his position in the family and among the all-important tribes which make up SANG,” he wrote then.

Today, Teitelbaum asserts that Abdullah, therefore, “may have assured the leadership of the House of Saud for many years to come."
Reuters contributed to this report.

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