Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Saudi succession and the GCC

The House of Saud will want to make a smooth transition to rule under King Salman, but inexorable domestic and regional pressures may test the dynasty to breaking point, writes Mohamed Al-Said Idris

King Abdullah
King Abdullah
Al-Ahram Weekly

King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz, who passed away on 23 January, not only served as a crucial keel in Saudi Arabia, with its various internal contradictions and conflicts, but also was a keystone in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The GCC was established in 1981, a year before the late king assumed political office in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as crown prince and first deputy prime minister following the death of King Khaled bin Abdel-Aziz.

King Abdullah was thoroughly familiar with the affairs of the GCC and its internal and external challenges. He was also a keen advocate of developing and transforming that regional body into a powerful federal entity capable of effectively counterbalancing other regional powers.

The question now is how and to what extent the absence of King Abdullah will affect the stability of the Saudi regime and the future of the GCC.

The new Saudi leadership must contend with a range of problems and threats, bringing to bear new means and a degree of ingenuity that will compensate for the absence of a ruler whose personal presence and acumen had the power to restrain rivalries, contain tensions and navigate crisis.

This applies as much to the handling of power struggles within the ruling dynasty as it does to the war against terrorism, demands for reform in a traditional society with a highly conservative religious establishment and the need to contain sectarian disturbances in the eastern part of the country.

THE POWER STRUGGLE: Salman bin Abdel-Aziz managed, with remarkable agility and perseverance, to leap to the fore in the contest for power within the Al-Saud dynasty. But his success is not final or complete.

Within hours of the death of King Abdullah, the royal court issued several crucial decrees. One was to confirm Prince Muqrin bin Abdel-Aziz as crown prince, which had been expected since the late king issued a decree on 27 March 2014 ordaining the investiture of Prince Muqrin as king in the event that the throne and the post of crown prince, then occupied by the present king, Salman, fell vacant.

Salman was appointed crown prince on 19 June 2012, succeeding his brother Prince Naif to this post.

The second and more important decree issued by the royal court appoints Prince Mohamed bin Naif bin Abdel-Aziz as deputy crown prince. This is an unprecedented action, though perhaps not unexpected as the House of Saud has for some time been haunted by the dilemma of passing power down through the generations from the sons of King Abdel-Aziz to the grandsons (the third generation).

Finally, a third decree appointed Prince Mohamed bin Salman bin Abdel-Aziz (King Salman’s son) as minister of defence and head of the royal court.

The first two royal court decrees, at least, did not emerge out of the blue. They were mostly discussed in front of the late king who, as his decree of last spring indicates, recognised the need for a deputy crown prince.

After all, Salman was 79 at the time he was appointed crown prince and not in the best of health, and he succeeded two other crown princes who suddenly passed away: Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz, who became crown prince in 2005 when Abdullah became king, and Prince Naif, who succeeded Crown Prince Sultan in 2012. It is quite likely, therefore, that the question of the appointment of Mohamed bin Naif as deputy crown prince was settled before King Abdullah’s death and with his approval.

It is also apparent that the late king was concerned with the rivalries within the royal family. As London Times columnist Hugh Tomlinson observed two weeks ago. before King Abdullah died, the declining health of the king had triggered strife among vying factions. Tomlinson wrote: “The 90-year old king, sent to hospital two weeks ago with pneumonia, has tried to secure his dynasty, placing his sons in key positions of power.”

Previously, when he came to power in 2005, he appointed his second son, Prince Mutaib, as commander of the National Guard. He also appointed his sons Abdulaziz as deputy foreign minister, Prince Mishaal as governor of Mecca and Prince Turki as governor of Riyadh province. These appointments were connected with the removal from power of the sons of Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan was dismissed as head of the Saudi intelligence agency on 15 April 2014 and Prince Salman bin Sultan was removed from the post of deputy defence minister in the context of a broad policy review due to their failure to manage the war against the Syrian regime.

The foregoing offers clear indications that Prince Mohamed bin Naif’s appointment as deputy crown prince will not be the final word on the power struggle within the Saudi dynasty. One facet of this struggle is generational, involving the passage of power to the third generation, the generation of King Abdul-Aziz’s grandson.

Prince Mohamed bin Naif’s appointment is unlikely to settle this question in view of the numerous princely rivals who also have ambitions to become king. Among the strongest contenders are the late king’s son and head of the National Guards, Prince Mutaib, former defence minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan and his brother, the former intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served as Saudi ambassador to Washington for 20 years.

Another facet of the power struggle operates across the various branches of the Saudi royal family that, altogether, has some 15,000 princes, of whom 2,000 have significant influence in the regime. Among the chief branches are those of King Saud and his descendants, King Faisal and his descendants, King Khaled and his descendants, and King Abdullah and his descendants.

However, there is a more important branch. It is related to the highly influential Al-Sudairi tribe from the Najd and specifically to Hassa bint Ahmed Al-Sudairi, one of the wives of King Abdul Aziz, who gave birth to the powerful alliance of full brothers within the House of Saud known as the Sudairi seven: King Fahd, Prince Sultan, Prince Naif, the current King Salman, Prince Abdel Rahman, Prince Turki and Prince Ahmed. The decision to appoint Mohamed bin Naif as deputy crown prince reflects the new king’s bias towards his clan and desire to restore power to the Sudairis.

In view of the fragile health of King Salman (aged 80) and indications that Crown Prince Muqrin (69) might face obstacles to his succession as his mother came from Yemen and was not a wife of King Abdel-Aziz, the stability of the throne may remain vulnerable for what might be described as a transitional period until Prince Mohamed bin Naif assumes the throne.

Perhaps this consideration is what led Simon Henderson, an expert on Saudi Arabian affairs and the Saudi dynasty at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to observe: “The prevailing view of commentators writing about the kingdom has been that, this time around, succession to the Saudi throne should be ‘smooth’. The caveats are about the future — concerns about the time after next that the desert kingdom has to choose a leader, rather than about how it will choose Abdullah’s successor.

“It’s high time that conventional wisdom came under greater scrutiny. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s coming transition is unlikely to be smooth — although this is certainly the way the House of Saud will want it to appear.”

OTHER TENSIONS AND CONFLICTS: The question of dynastic stability comes at a time when KSA is contending with an intensive array of interconnected conflicts and threats. Not least is the war against jihadist terrorism, as epitomised by Daesh (the Islamic State) and Al-Qaeda while, at home, an ultraconservative and extremely rigid establishment with takfiri outlooks remains a cornerstone of the regime and a source of inspiration to the jihadist Salafist trend.

Entire generations of Saudi youth have been raised in the embrace of that establishment and numerous religious community organisations that promote and support Salafist fundamentalism. The ruling authorities will have to surmount numerous obstacles if they are to mobilise the country against a terrorism that menaces Saudi Arabia itself.

However, to do so they must eventually lock horns with that religious establishment, even though such a confrontation conflicts with the regime’s need for that establishment to bolster the new legitimacy. The same applies when it comes to the government’s need to respond to mounting demands at home for political and social reforms, which that religious establishment opposes.

Another thorny question for the new authorities entails the mounting sectarianism in the east, where a large Shia minority is increasingly vulnerable to persecution not only at the hands of takfiri terrorism but by the fundamentalist Wahhabi religious establishment. At this at a time when Saudi Shia are finding support in their fight against discrimination, whether from Iran or from neighbouring Bahrain, where the Shia majority is pressing for democratic reforms.

THE GCC: The many challenges that the Saudi regime is facing under its new leadership simultaneously raise questions concerning the fate of the GCC following the death of King Abdullah. The late monarch was crucial to striking balances and containing tensions between the members of that regional organisation. Also, he had a vision for developing it into a federal entity capable of standing its own against other regional powers or blocs.

Among the steps he took to confront the winds of change blowing from the Arab Spring revolutions was to move to strengthen the GCC. Initially, he campaigned to expand this entity to include Arab monarchies outside the Gulf (Jordan and Morocco) and turn the council into a “Federation of Arab Kingdoms.”

In response to the cool reception that greeted this proposal from other GCC members, Abdullah began to promote the idea of turning the council into a Gulf federation. At the GCC summit in December 2011, he cited the regional situation and the need to intervene militarily in Bahrain to “protect the institutions of the state” as compelling reasons for a more integrated framework.

The idea was rejected out of hand by Oman and met with little enthusiasm from the other GCC members, apart from Bahrain. In fact, GCC members found little incentive to integrate more closely than they had when they founded the council in 1981. That step had been motivated by the perception of a collective threat posed to the Gulf from the repercussions of the Iraq-Iran War, which had erupted in September 1980.

Before that point, and before the collapse of the regime of the Shah in Iran in 1979, the Gulf countries — Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain — had constantly tried to evade Saudi pressures to sign joint security and defence agreements. One reason was outstanding border disputes between them, as most of them had only recently emerged as independent nations following the official British military withdrawal from the region in 1971.

A far more crucial factor, however, was the imbalance in power between these five countries and the Saudi Arabian mammoth. They were therefore determined to resist pressures to fall in line with a particular mode of relations that would reduce them to dependencies of Riyadh, inhibit their ability to forge independent foreign policies, and that would impede direct communications between them and the two powers that rivalled Saudi Arabia for regional leadership in the Gulf, namely Iran and Iraq.

Oman, for example, often turned to Iran, still under the Shah, as a means to counter Saudi pressures while Kuwait looked to Iraq for that purpose. Eventually, Saudi Arabia managed to sign bilateral security agreements with four of these countries. The fifth — Kuwait — succeeded in evading this pressure.

 At the same time, a number of factors enhanced these five smaller countries’ manoeuvrability with respect to KSA. A chief factor, of course, was their vast petroleum wealth and rising oil prices, which enhanced their importance and influence among international powers, ever ready to back and assist them.

In like manner, the strategic importance of the Gulf bolstered these countries’ importance during the Cold War. Thirdly, as suggested above, there were two other regional powers — Iran and Iraq — prepared to lend a hand if need be.

In fact, it was the disappearance of the third factor, with the revolution in Iran and the eruption of the Iraq-Iran War, that galvanised them into forging the GCC. However, the five smaller members still had enough leverage to ensure that the council’s charter was filled with provisions that guaranteed their autonomous decision-making powers.

As a result, the GCC is more of a consultative body at which decisions are taken unanimously (to ensure that each country preserves the right to veto) and even then are not binding. This contrasts with the spirit of the passages in that charter that state that the peoples of these countries aspire to and seek to attain unity.

Several facts emerge clearly from the foregoing. First, the five countries attach high priority to their independence and are determined to resist pressures that might oblige them to compromise on that. Second, the establishment of the GCC was motivated by the need to avert outside dangers rather than by the positive inducement of the potential advantages to be gained by closer integration.

Even the prospect of better collective self-defence capacities was not a major incentive for integration, let alone federation, especially as these countries had always been confident that they could forge an alliance with a major power for the purposes of national security.

Indeed, this turned out to be the case as the US military presence intensified in 1987, to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers from Iran, and then even more so following the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991. Since then, the US has signed bilateral defence accords with all six GCC countries.

Thirdly, the Iran/Iraq factor remains crucial. Constant fear of Iran and Iraq had been one of the most important motives for continuing with the GCC experience. Iran has now become the chief threat to most Gulf countries.

If we take into account previous Iranian and Iraqi objections to the creation to the GCC without them, and Iran’s opposition to the GCC’s positions in support of the UAE and Bahrain, we can appreciate the strength of Tehran’s fear and rejection of an Arab entity in the Gulf that excludes Iran.

The awareness of this among the Gulf countries has reinforced their disinclination to forge a deeper unity, as this could expose them to more intense pressures from Iran, which rejects any foreign presence in the Gulf (including any non-Gulf Arab presence), seeks to replace the GCC with a broader regional framework that would include Iran and Iraq, and demands an end to the US military presence in the Gulf. These are demands and pressures that are rejected by most of the six GCC countries.

The fourth critical factor relates to the nature of government in the Gulf. Power in these countries is almost entirely monopolised by ruling families and public participation is limited, with the exception of Kuwait. The ruling houses fear the erosion of their authority and power if their countries were to merge into a broader framework with an overarching authority, such as a federal system.

For all the above reasons, the GCC experience failed over the course of 32 years to attain a minimum degree of assimilation and integration. The foregoing factors essentially remained constant during that period. Therefore, Omani opposition to King Abdullah’s federal project may have been the only overt objection, but Omani reservations were shared by the other members.

Perhaps more important, however, is the awareness that Saudi motives for forming a federation are little different from those that led it to forge the GCC and that these were informed chiefly by external factors that may or may not be ephemeral.

In this case, these would be the repercussions of the Arab Spring, which were felt acutely in Bahrain, where the forces of the Peninsular Shield were called in to suppress the uprising that had been billed as a “foreign conspiracy” or “Iranian plot.”

Undoubtedly, this explains why the Islamic Wefaq (Concord) Party opposed the Bahraini government’s enthusiasm for the Saudi federal project for the Gulf. The Shia opposition party naturally fears that the Shia majority in Bahrain would lose their influence and position if their country were to join a federation and Bahraini citizens were to merge into a larger majority Sunni sea.

No sooner had the Bahraini government announced its support for the Saudi call to create a Gulf federation than the president of the Wefaq society, Ali Salman, proclaimed that any change in the form of the GCC must be approved unanimously by all Gulf countries on the basis of the results of a referendum in each country.

Salman knows that he holds the keys to these two conditions in Bahrain, as the leader of the majority Shia community. In other words, these two conditions are contingent upon the will of a single party, the Shia majority that, unfortunately, has become embroiled in a sectarian political project fuelled by Iran.

“Bahrain is not some morsel of food on the table for Saudi Arabia to gobble up. Those type of practices stir crises in the region,” Salman said.

All these challenges weighed heavily on King Abdullah, who struggled to overcome them. Now that he is gone, the challenges will intensify and differences will multiply, whether over the future of the GCC as an institution or even over relations between its member nations following the nascent and still fragile reconciliation between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, and the parallel reconciliation between Doha and Cairo.

The Gulf-Gulf reconciliation could be at risk if it does not receive the appropriate care and attention from the new Saudi leadership. The same applies to the GCC, whose future could be jeopardised by grave present threats to the Gulf regional security order, especially given growing doubts regarding the sincerity of US commitment to protect GCC countries and meet its security and defence obligations to them.

Such doubts have been raised by a number of regional changes, most notably the US interest in securing opportunities to cooperate with Iran and bring negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme to a successful conclusion. The likely repercussions of this would be to enhance the Iranian regional profile and reduce the weight of the Gulf countries in US priorities and its foreign policy outlook, especially given the decline in US dependency on Gulf oil due to the significant rise in its domestic oil production.

In addition to the foregoing, there is the challenge posed by other international powers that are keen to become a key factor in Gulf security equations. Prime among these, of course, is the NATO member who is an “interested party” alongside GCC members in the NATO programme known as the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

There is also Britain, which won a contract to set up a military base in Bahrain, its first since officially leaving the Gulf in 1971, and France, which has two military bases in the region — one in Oman and the other in the UAE.

The new Saudi leadership has to contend with all these pressing external issues at a time of general regional upheaval, and at a time when domestic problems are asserting themselves as urgent priorities that cannot be deferred.

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