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The Saudi Succession Question

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Prince Muqrin bin Abdelaziz gestures during a news conference in Riyadh, Nov. 24, 2007. Image courtesy to REUTERS/Ali Jarekji.

RIYADH — The recent royal decree appointing Prince Muqrin bin Abdelaziz as deputy crown prince, thus guaranteeing his eventual rise to the throne, has reassured many Saudis about their leadership for the near future, but it has not dispelled their concerns about the monarchy’s long-term stability.

Saudis gave the announcement a “welcome reaction,” said Asaad al-Shamlan of the Institute of Diplomatic Studies in Riyadh. “It’s provided some kind of certainty regarding the succession and medium-term stability.” Nevertheless, the decree’s unusual disclosure that the king’s decision was approved by three-quarters of the princes consulted, along with its strong insistence that the decision “may not be modified or changed in any way or form by any person whoever it may be,” left lingering concerns about how firmly the king’s decision was accepted within the royal family. Who, Saudis wonder, are the rejecting 25%?

“The interesting thing is that they announced the percentage of votes for Muqrin,” said a Saudi university English lecturer. “Usually, they would not announce that there are objections.” While the House of Saud has a history of being pragmatic and of closing ranks behind a consensus, many Saudis fear potentially rancorous infighting as members of the younger, second generation of princes vie to assume the reins of power. Muqrin’s projected ascension to someday become king now means that that day of reckoning is further postponed.

Shamlan suggested that fears of infighting had been overblown. He noted that the king’s decision did not leak prior to its March 27 announcement despite a pocket of rejectionists. That, he added, is “indicative of some cohesion in the royal family.” An academic who closely follows royal politics and asked to remain anonymous wrote in an email that Saudis “are reassured for the time being, but there is a sense of concern about the future.”

Meanwhile, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, in elevating his youngest half-brother, violated his own earlier edict that established new procedures for selecting future crown princes. In 2006, Abdullah established the 34-member Allegiance Council, comprised of sons and grandsons of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz bin Saud. According to its regulations, this body was supposed to play an active role in choosing the crown prince when that post next became vacant. Abdullah, however, preempted the prerogative of the council and instead designated Muqrin to be the next crown prince when the incumbent, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, either becomes king, steps down for health reasons or dies. Muqrin would also become king if the posts of crown prince and king become vacant simultaneously.

The royal decree stated that King Abdullah had made his decision in cooperation with Salman, but it appears that the council was not called into session to participate in Muqrin’s selection. Instead, its members were polled individually, according to an April 1 tweet by Khalid bin Talal, son of Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz who is regarded as an independent-minded maverick within the royal family. Asked about this tweeted information, the Saudi academic wrote in an email, “It seems that what Khaled bin Talal tweeted is more realistic and is accurate in stating that members were consulted individually.”

The announcement of Muqrin’s appointment came on the eve of President Barack Obama’s long-awaited visit to Riyadh and overshadowed his arrival as the Saudi rumor mill went into overdrive, even suggesting, falsely, that King Abdullah would be abdicating. That speculation was further fueled by pictures of the king, who is around 90, wearing an oxygen tube as he met with Obama. Abdullah has always been more candid that other princes about sharing his health status with the public. He did not keep secret, for example, that when he traveled to the United States a few years ago, he was having back surgery.

On the face of it, Muqrin’s new role means that the first generation of princes, the sons of the country’s founder, will remain the principal power brokers for potentially at least a decade or more because Muqrin is only 68 years old. This situation raises the question of whether it is good for Saudi Arabia at a time when it needs forceful leadership at the top because of the huge economic and development challenges of the near future. Many Saudis feel that younger people with more energy are needed to drive a recalcitrant bureaucracy that often fails to implement major decisions in a timely way. Some Saudis also would like to see a leadership that is more open to greater participation by ordinary people in government decision-making.

On Saudi Arabia today, James Smith, former US ambassador to Riyadh, asserted, “You have a population that no longer sees themselves as subjects. They see themselves as citizens, and they’re demanding that their government be responsive.” Speaking during a March 31 teleconference sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smith added that one of the government’s biggest challenges “is balancing the expectations of a citizenry that is increasingly involved and want to be a part of the dialogue.”

In a sense, the line between the first and second generation has been blurred by Muqrin’s ascension because he is closer in age to his nephews. For example, the king’s son Miteb, who heads the National Guard, is 60, and Khalid bin Faisal, the education minister, is 73.

By most accounts, Muqrin is a likable prince, known for his friendliness and for taking popular stands. For example, he recently castigated Saudi banks for not helping ordinary Saudis. “People like Muqrin, and they are optimistic and happy for this appointment,” said the English-language lecturer. “He takes decisions immediately when people complain so they feel comfortable that he cares about them.”

Meanwhile, one well-placed Saudi who works in the office of a senior prince said that King Abdullah might soon press ahead with a move that has long been bandied about in the royal family — naming a prime minister to take on many of the executive functions now performed by the king. This change, the source said, would be meant “to give assurances for the future.”