In Saudi Arabia, the King Is Counting His Days

Abdullah's potential successor is Prince Muqrin, a former intelligence chief who studied in Britain and the United States, who may turn out to be a key player in tomorrow's Middle East.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

They were born a year and a half apart. One became a president and the other became a king. One enjoys the company of women singers and actors from abroad, the other controls the most puritanical kingdom on earth. One is the world's oldest president, full of vitality, the other is the world's oldest king. And he's counting his days.

But compared to Shimon Peres, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia actually rules, so tensions in the kingdom over his succession are increasing. A week ago Saturday, the king cut short his Morocco vacation and returned home. The official reason was that regional developments, particularly the Syrian civil war, required his return.

But nothing out of the ordinary had happened in Syria, and the Iranian election, whose date was known in advance, couldn't have been the reason, either. It's believed that something was going on in the Saudi royal family. It's the royal family, not the fate of Bashar Assad, that's on the top of the king's mind.

King Abdullah is ill — very ill. Rumors of his death a year ago were premature, but the king still has a hard time walking, suffers from high blood pressure and can't hold a short meeting.

But he still sets the kingdom’s foreign policy and future. His concern now is to hand the kingdom over to his successor without bloodshed or a revolution. It’s not just his throne he wants to bequeath, but his legacy. And his successor will not necessarily come from the next generation.

In the past 81 years, the kingdom has been passed down among the founder's sons five times. Though there has been arm-twisting, there has been no violent struggle. That's what Abdullah was hoping for when he began spinning his web of high-level appointments a year ago.

The two crown princes he appointed last year, Sultan and Nayef, died of natural causes. The current designated heir, Prince Salman, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The 77-year-old Prince Ahmed — the youngest of the Sudairi brothers, the sons of founder King Abdulaziz and his wife Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi – was appointed interior minister.

They're the young generation

While Ahmed was dismissed after five months because he opposed the splitting of the security forces into independent units, he is still very influential in the kingdom and the family. But the younger generation, Abdulaziz’s grandchildren, is demanding the power to rule.

King Abdulaziz has 43 descendants, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They rule the kingdom. Many of them have high positions in the army, the royal guard and the ministries, and serve as district governors and mayors.

Keeping the balance between generations is the secret of stability in the kingdom, which has avoided the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. This balance requires the king to know not only the talents of high-ranking royals, but also the political and tribal coalitions that each has melded.

The Allegiance Council, which was established in 2007, is in charge of appointing the king and crown prince; it has the authority to block an appointment the king has decided on. But Abdullah told the council that it could use the full extent of its authority only after his death. Despite its reservations he appointed the successor himself, as he appointed 68-year-old Prince Muqrin, the youngest of Abdulaziz’s sons, second deputy prime minister in February.

The appointment conveyed a message. When the king also functions as prime minister and chief of the armed forces, the second deputy prime minister runs the country for all practical purposes. (The first deputy prime minister is the crown prince.) King Fahd, King Abdullah and the two deceased crown princes held that position, considered a springboard to the throne.

Muqrin, who was a combat pilot and head of Saudi intelligence, is one of the king’s most trusted associates; he was given assignments even before his latest appointment. He was responsible for the Pakistan and Afghanistan portfolio, is in charge of Saudi Arabia’s handling of the Syrian crisis and is considered a hard-liner against Iran.

His appointment, with its hint that the king wants him to succeed him, has not yet sunk in among the princes, mainly Abdulaziz’s grandchildren, who are demanding the right to propose their own candidate.

We should pay close attention to Prince Muqrin, who studied in Britain and the United States. He is reportedly an enthusiast of astronomy and Arabic poetry and has a library of tens of thousands of books. He could become the next leader not only of Saudi Arabia but the whole Middle East.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia welcomes Gulf Arab leaders in Riyadh, May 14, 2012.Credit: AP

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