Arab World: The Saudi leadership crisis

When tired old rulers and not so young pretenders face off.

Hajj 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Hajj 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Last week saw the successful completion of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, the haj. In stark contrast to previous years there were no disasters, no terror attacks and no political demonstrations.
All was not well however. As the ceremonies were about to begin, a communiqué from the official news agency informed the people of Saudi Arabia that their king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the eldest living son of famed King Ibn Saud, was unwell. Allegedly suffering from a slipped disk, the aging monarch (he was born in 1924) was ordered to rest by his physicians.
Therefore Interior Minister Naef bin Abdul Aziz, already second deputy prime minister (the king is formally prime minister), was entrusted with supervising the pilgrimage and took the king’s place at the traditional reception for the heads of pilgrim delegations.
Prince Naef is only the fifth in the royal order of succession and the task should have been handed over to his brother, Crown Prince Sultan, first deputy prime minister. However for the past two years Sultan, 83, who is recovering from cancer surgery, has been living in his Moroccan palace. It has become increasingly clear that something must be done to rejuvenate the leadership of a kingdom facing a number or urgent issues, from modernizing the administration and the economy to fighting radical Islam inspired by al-Qaida and facing up to a nuclear Iran. For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, both the ruler and his designated successor are unable to fulfill their duties.
Under the supervision of Naef, the pilgrimage went off almost without a hitch and the Saudi leaders could congratulate themselves. After all, dealing with the nearly 3 million pilgrims coming for seven to 10 days is no easy task. The visitors move together from Mecca and its great mosque to the other three locations where the ceremonies are held – Mount Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina – situated several miles northwest of that city. At Mount Arafat, where Muhammad delivered his last sermon, the faithful pray and renew their allegiance to Allah. At Muzdalifah, they gather the stones to be used for next day ritual at Mina, where they stone the pillar representing the devil.
Of the 2.8 million people who participated this year, 1.8 million came from 108 different countries and the rest from Saudi Arabia itself – most of them foreigners living in the kingdom. A small number of pilgrims died because of the heat and the stress, and there was a fire caused by a negligent cook, but that was all. In the past, thousands had died during the feast – from epidemics, falling buildings and people being crushed by stampeding crowds. In 1990, 1,400 people died when a bridge collapsed; in 1997, a fire in a camping site killed 300 pilgrims in Mina.
The worst incident took place in 1979. A group of Saudi militants led by a self-proclaimed mahdi (the prophet or redeemer who will come to earth before the Day of Judgment) stormed the Great Mosque of Mecca. It took two weeks of deadly fighting and hundreds of dead on both sides to defeat them.
More recently, Iranian pilgrims sent by Teheran to foment trouble demonstrated, chanting, “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.” Saudi leaders did not hesitate and had the leaders executed.
Saudi kings are well aware of their difficult mission.
They wear the proud name of “keepers of Islam’s two holy sites” (Mecca and Medina) and since the early 1970s, they have been working hard to develop the infrastructure needed for the yearly pilgrimage. The two great mosques were restored and their surface expanded to accommodate the throngs who must circle the Kaaba, the black stone Last week saw the successful completion of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, the haj. In stark contrast to previous years there were no disasters, no terror attacks and no political demonstrations.
To protect the visitors from al-Qaida, which had threatened to launch terror attacks, Saudi leaders reinforced the police, increased security measures and deployed 100,000 security personnel in the field. Al-Qaida then declared it would not target the pilgrimage. Prince Naef did not relax his efforts; security personnel managed to foil terror attempts which would have disrupted the pilgrimage and severely embarrassed the kingdom.
THE GOVERNOR of Mecca, Prince Khalid al-Faysal bin Abdel Aziz, expressed the satisfaction and the relief of the king and his entourage at the peaceful ending of the feast, when he praised both the overall organization and the safety measures.
However, important as that was, the successful pilgrimage was only a lull in the ongoing battle for the royal succession.
Now the health of the king is more than ever a source of worry and intrigue. King Abdullah ascended the throne in 2005, when he was nearing 80. His health was already a source of concern. The alleged slipped disk he suffers from today is all the more worrying. The situation must be dire, since together with the announcement that the ailing monarch would be traveling to the US for an operation came the startling news that Prince Sultan, himself a very sick man, was arriving from Morocco to assume the mantle in his absence, but he is in no state to rule. It has become imperative to agree on a new crown prince who will be able to take over.
Abdullah himself is well aware of the state of affairs and in 2006 set up, with the consent of his brothers (his potential successors), an allegiance committee empowered to designate a new heir to the throne and even to rule in the interim period.
According to the basic law of the country, set down by King Fahd in 1972, it must be ruled by the descendants of King Abdel Aziz Al Saud governing according to Islamic law, the Koran being the country’s constitution. The allegiance committee, comprised of the sons and grandsons of Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, never convened in order not to make public the differences of opinion in the royal family. The other remaining older sons of the king, some of them governors of the main provinces, see themselves as entitled to rule because of their age and their closeness to the old leader. They are unhappy at the promotion of their brother Naef over their heads.
Naef is a good administrator and has shown himself capable of ruling the country; he won much praise for his successful fight against terror threats from al-Qaida. Nevertheless, he is nearing 80. Waiting in the wings are younger hopefuls – the king’s son Miteb, who was appointed only last week by his father head of the National Guard, keeper of the country’s internal security, and Naef’s son, who is in charge of combating terror under the guidance of his father.
The kingdom is uneasily awaiting new developments. Naef’s appointment to represent the king was only temporary and will end with the return of Prince Sultan.
So what would have happened in case of a sudden crisis, economic or security related? Who would make the all important, urgent decisions? The king could have designated Naef as his successor, or he could have convened the allegiance committee to choose someone more acceptable to the whole family. He did neither.
The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.