With the mourning period for the late Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia ending on Thursday, preparations are underway for the announcement of a new heir to King Abdullah, ending a brief period of anxiety over the fate of the oil kingdom.
The source of this apprehension lies in the fact that a decades-old succession standard was recently change and, for the first time in Saudi history, the king must choose a second heir to replace the deceased crown prince, Prince Sultan.
When King Abdullah’s deteriorating health and the complicated familial factors are taken into consideration, it is no mystery why public anticipation is intensifying as it is.
Saudi Minister of Interior Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, Prince Sultan’s 78-year-old brother, is seen as the obvious choice. It is a reality that inspires apprehension given Nayef’s conservative profile and reputation as a strongman.
As chief of the Ministry of Interior (the most important Saudi ministry along with the Ministry of Defence), Prince Nayef‘s portfolio includes a significant campaign against Al-Qaeda, which the country’s security forces succeeded in quelling after attacks in 2003 and 2006.
He is well known for his strong connections with the powerful Wahabist institution in Saudi Arabia and represents a conservative front in the ruling royal family, having led the anti-liberal current, standing against political freedoms and women’s rights.
“I don't see the need for that” was Nayef’s response to reporters early in 2009 opposing the election of members to the Shura Council and the inclusion of women in the consultative body.
It is Prince Nayef who has resisted King Abdullah’s drive for reforms since ascending to the throne in 2005.
His influence exceeds that of his post at the helm of the interior ministry. He acted on behalf of the king when the king and Prince Sultan were undergoing treatment and rendered unfit to oversee Saudi affairs.
He was seen to be groomed for the role when he was appointed by King Abdullah as the deputy head of the ministerial council in 2009, a position usually granted to the prince who is regarded as third in line to the throne, a decision which angered Prince Abdel Rahman, Nayef’s elder brother.
Prince Abdel Rahman, second eldest of the Sudairi brothers (after Sultan) is technically next in line for crown prince, according to the old rules where age and ability were the prime standards.
Things changed when, in 2006, King Abdullah created the Allegiance Council to discuss and then pledge allegiance to a consensual successor in order to circumvent rising competitiveness in the thousands-strong royal family.
The older Prince had disappeared soon after Prince Nayef’s 2009 appointment but had returned again and displayed a close relationship with King Abdullah, frequently appearing by his side in public raising doubts that he wouldn’t easily support Prince Nayef for heir.
Another problem that Prince Nayef would potentially face is that he does not enjoy the same level of general support afforded his predecessors, as is already apparent with Prince Abdel Rahman. This shaky ground may be exacerbated with other princes such as Mishaal, son of the late Prince Sultan.
In all cases, it is doubtful with the current choices that stability will be achieved in the near future. With an ageing first generation passing down its supreme authority from one member to another and plagued by disease and facing near death, the second and third generations – more in line with the majority of the Saudi population – are losing patience.
After King Abdullah announces his choice of heir, he will have to reshuffle his government. The Ministry of Defence, empty after the death of Sultan, will be handed over to another prince and, should Nayef become crown prince, the interior ministry may also be up for grabs.
Princes Muhammed and Khaled, the sons of Nayef and Sultan respectively and both deputies of their fathers’ ministries, are most likely to take over. But since other princes are also waiting to be appeased after being patient for a long time (such as Bandar bin Sultan for Interior Ministry), this is no certainty. A similar scenario exists in other ministries.
The role of the Allegiance Council is to guarantee an orderly and quiet transition but it is yet to be seen whether or not Saudi Arabia, so far marginally affected by the unrest engulfing the region, will remain on its slow, conservative path of reform that the older generation represents.