Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Who’s next?

Speculation is rife about the succession process in Saudi Arabia in light of the failing health of incumbent King Abdullah, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif

Al-Ahram Weekly

News of King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz’s health condition has disappeared from the pages of most Saudi dailies. Instead, news pages are littered with the various state activities of heir apparent Prince Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz, among which his visit to the ailing monarch at the King Abdel-Aziz Medical Centre where he is receiving treatment.

Save for a short video clip aired on Saudi television 4 December showing King Abdullah receiving an array of Saudi princes, there has been little or no information on the ailing head of state. The blackout has raised pressing questions about the succession process in the kingdom and whether or not arrangements are already under way to hand powers to Prince Salman.

The succession crisis dates to June when Prince Nayef, the heir apparent then, died. King Abdullah was quick to name Salman, even without any consultations with Hayeaat Al-Bayaa (the Allegiance Council), set up by Abdullah in 2006 to ensure a smooth transition and diffuse family feuds over the succession.

The appointment of 76-year-old Prince Salman, who also occupies the post of defence minister and prince of Riyadh, would guarantee that no dramatic leadership changeovers are expected and that a smooth transition would eventually unfold. It does not, however, answer the bigger question regarding the future of the process of succession in light of the existence of scores of aging and ailing next in lines.

The Allegiance Council is composed of the sons and grandsons of King Abdel-Aziz, the founder of the Saudi Kingdom, who died some 60 years ago. According to Article 7 of the council, identifying the approach to naming the heir apparent, the king would consult with council members and would select one or two, or possibly three, figures that he sees fit for rule among his brothers. So first Prince Sultan, half brother of King Abdullah, was named crown prince. When he died October 2011, his brother Nayef was named. After Nayef died, Salman was named.

The Law of Governance sets the rules through which the country would be run in the event that the king is unable, due to health reasons, to assume his responsibilities. This was an important step forward to avoid repeating the circumstances when from 1995-2005 King Fahd was paralysed and then heir apparent Prince Abdullah was the actual ruler but unable to assume full powers to rule.

There remain six princes, sons of Abdel-Aziz, most of them aging and not in good health. This raises fears that the kingdom might witness a new king every other year. While the name of the game for the Saudi royal family has been stability, power struggles within the family could be a real cause for instability at home and abroad.

The significance of the succession question is that Saudi policies on domestic, regional and international levels are usually shaped by the personality of the king rather than by state institutions. Knowing the next in line’s views on crucial issues, such as political reform, social openness, corruption, and regional politics, is highly important in discerning what kind of Saudi Arabia will emerge post-Abdullah.

The US administration is eyeing developments in Saudi Arabia with great attention. One American academic argued that this particular succession is likely to be crucial to US-Middle East policy. “The character and ruling style of the next Saudi king could either help or hinder American aims on a broad range of important regional issues, including those involving Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East peace process, and energy security,” wrote Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Programme at the Washington Institute.

Salman will inherit a difficult legacy with a restless population that saw none of King Abdullah’s promises of reforms materialise. While a large segment of the country’s youth (60 per cent of the Saudi population are under the age of 30) face unemployment and a lack of basic freedoms, it is unlikely that Salman’s ascendance to the throne would bring about any dramatic changes. Al-Saud family will continue to rely on material wealth, access to oil revenues, and personal networks to maintain its influence.

If enthroned, Salman will be ruling the kingdom amid turbulent times domestically and regionally. Evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia — a champion of regime change in Libya and Syria and a game spoiler in Egypt — is not likely to remain immune to the wave of popular awakening that marks the so-called Arab Spring. Already signs of simmering discontent are present in unprecedented protests not only in the eastern province but also across the country. The capital, Riyadh, witnesses a regular showing of families of detainees who protest in front of the Interior Ministry.

The most pressing challenge for the king to be, however, would be to look for an heir apparent, a process that will prove extremely difficult. Going for the younger generation of Al-Saud (mostly in their 60s) would open a Pandora’s box and lead to instability, anathema to Saudi rule for the past six decades.

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