Saudi Arabia’s Ailing King in U.S. for Medical Treatment, Succession Jitters Inside the Kingdom

As Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah undergoes critical medical treatment in the United States, America’s key ally in the Middle East is beginning a very complex and uncertain royal succession process that may take months or even years to fully play out. Both the king and the crown prince suffer from illness and age, the succession after them is unclear and the process has become more complicated by the king’s efforts to introduce more order into what traditionally has been a very opaque process. The kingdom is America’s most critical ally in the Arab world and its stability is vital to American national and global economic security, so the stakes are huge for Americans.

King Abdullah, 86, has ruled since his brother Fahd had a stroke in 1995. For the first few years after the stroke, foreign visitors to the royal palace were still required to call on the only partly lucid Fahd for a cup of tea before walking across the immense green marbled building to the crown prince’s office on its other side to conduct real business. Abdullah would always begin his conversation by reaffirming his loyalty to his brother’s wishes. Fahd died in 2005. The charade was maintained because the stakes in a Saudi royal succession are enormous for the princes involved and because the kingdom prides itself on order, family harmony, and stability.

Now Abdullah has given up one of the key components of his own personal power base, command of the kingdom’s praetorian guards, the National Guard, to his son, Mitab, and flown to the U.S. to check into a hospital. Abdullah has commanded the Guard since 1962. Its forces are the only military allowed near the capital, Riyadh, and the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Crown Prince Sultan returned last weekend to the kingdom from almost a year spent recovering from his medical ailments at his palace in Morocco to symbolically step in for the king. Sultan, 85, has been minister of defense and aviation since 1962, but he is said to be in very poor health and can perform only limited duties. He commands the regular army and air force. The symbolic handoff of responsibility takes place during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, one of the most sensitive times in the country’s annual calendar. This timing suggests the king’s illness is serious.

In 2006, Abdullah created a new institution called the Allegiance Commission to decide the line of succession after Sultan. It is composed of the 35 surviving male heirs, sons and grandsons, of the modern kingdom’s founder, Abd al Aziz al Saud, who will collectively decide future succession.

The kingdom has been ruled since Abd al Aziz’s death in 1953 by his sons. The number of capable and qualified princes is dwindling with time. Three are still widely regarded as potential heirs after Abdullah and Sultan pass away. Minister of Interior Nayif, 77, already holds the position of second deputy prime minister, traditionally the third spot. Nayif and his son Muhammad have overseen the kingdom’s very successful crackdown on al Qaeda internally. The governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman, 71, is probably next in line. He has supervised the growth of the capital from a remote desert town into a major city in the last four decades. The youngest of Abd al Aziz’s sons, Prince Muqrin, 65, is the head of the Saudi intelligence service and the kingdom’s diplomatic trouble shooter.

The good news for the U.S. is that all of the senior princes support the special relationship with America and want to continue to pursue close connections with Washington. Abdullah was thought to be the least pro-American back in the 1980s but the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait brought him around to being a staunch believer in the alliance. President Obama wisely made Riyadh his first port of call in the Middle East after his inauguration, a gesture the Saudis appreciated. The Obama administration is in the final stages of completing an enormous $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, half of which is for the National Guard (including over 150 attack, transport and utility helicopters), which will further cement our bilateral security relationship.

Nonetheless personality matters in an absolute monarchy. Abdullah has been a modest reformer by Saudi standards and has sought to address difficult societal issues like women’s access to education and employment. Nayif is probably the most conservative of the top team. Succession is always a period of uncertainty in any country. Al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen next door will undoubtedly try to stir up problems and has already tried to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayif more than once. Osama bin Laden ridiculed the long period of Fahd’s rule after his stroke, saying “the idea that the entire length and breadth of the land is ruled in the name of a king who for a decade has no longer known what is going on is incredible.”

The kingdom works at is own pace which can seem very slow and peculiar to outsiders. But it is crucial to American policy on so many issues; it should be watched closely as it proceeds through to its succession process at its own speed.