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Rivalry inside Saudi royal family set to intensify

Prince Nayef seen the strongest, healthiest of them.

November 23, 2010 4:21 by

After decades of Saudi Arabia’s throne passing from brother to brother, any change at the helm of the world’s largest oil exporter due to illness among the leadership will intensify fierce rivalry for top jobs within the royal family.

At stake is not just who will eventually succeed current King Abdullah or his deputy Crown Prince Sultan, both in poor health and in their late 80s, but prime positions of power that control the country’s vast wealth, social policies, influential Islamic clerics and military.

Abdullah flew to New York on Monday for medical treatment after a blood clot complicated a slipped spinal disc and Sultan rushed back from abroad where he was convalescing to manage the the kingdom’s affairs.

Since the death of Saudi Arabia’s founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud in 1953, the Saudi throne has passed to his sons, with Abdullah the sixth to rule, and two others, Sultan and Interior Minister Prince Nayef, at the front of the line to inherit.

The eventual transfer of power is meant to be decided by an “Allegiance Council” of the founder’s remaining sons and grandsons that will approve future kings’ nominations for crown prince. With only 20 sons left, many of them also in bad health or lacking the clout to move up, the leadership will have to select from among the dozens of Ibn Saud’s grandsons.

As a result, senior princes appear to be more interested in promoting their sons than working out a new strategy for rule in a country that carries their family name, said London-based scholar Madawi al-Rasheed, who has written a history of Saudi Arabia.

“They don’t seem ready to make bold decisions,” Rasheed said. “The council does not seem effective.”

On Sunday Sultan made a hasty return from Morocco, where he has sought treatment and rest over the past few years, to run the kingdom during Abdullah’s absence.

With both king and his crown prince in their 80s and frail, there is a good chance that religious and social traditionalist Nayef, relatively younger at 76, could take over running the country of 18 million.

A number of other sons and grandsons have returned in recent weeks. Riyadh governor Prince Salman — a full-brother of Nayef and Sultan — came back this week after an illness, as did Prince Turki bin Abdul-Aziz. Sultan’s son Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former ambassador in Washington, returned in October.

“They don’t come back for nothing,” said one diplomat. “It seems the various branches of the family want everyone back as the family finds consensus about important questions.”

Before leaving, the king last week handed full control of the National Guard, an elite Bedouin corps that handles domestic security, to his son Mitab — a move which could set off a spate of similar moves by princes keen to preserve their fiefdoms.

“This could be the start of change,” said Dubai-based security and political analyst Theodore Karasik.

Sultan is expected to hand over the defence minister position to his deputy and son, Khaled bin Sultan, Saudi experts say. Days after Abdullah’s illness was first announced, Sultan signed massive airport contracts from his Moroccan palace shown on state television.


Since its foundation in 1932, the main wings of the Al Saud family maintained a fine balance with the clerics of an austere Sunni Islam version to co-rule the kingdom.

Although it has a history of finding a consensus, the family faces the challenge of sharing power once only grandsons remain, a complicated issue given the sheer size of ambitious royals.

Among the most influential are the Sudairis, a group of senior full-brothers that include Nayef, Sultan, the late King Fahd and Riyadh governor Salman. Saudi experts have long seen rifts between the Sudairis and their half-brother Abdullah.

“The main schism in the royal family remains the longstanding division between the so-called Sudairi sons of Ibn Saud and their half-brothers,” said Simon Henderson, a Washington-based author of studies on Saudi succession.

It remains to be seen whether Sultan will be able to stay at the helm if Abdullah’s absence is prolonged. Officials say he is back to normal but diplomats say he has eased up on his duties.

Faced with Sultan’s long absence last year, Abdullah was obliged to name Nayef as second deputy prime minister, which has allowed him to steadily expand his influence by chairing cabinet meetings or undertaking state visits abroad when Abdullah was busy or Sultan absent.

Nayef’s possible ascension to the throne may alarm the West, diplomats say, as Nayef long denied that the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 were carried out by Saudis or al Qaeda, suggesting they were carried out by Israel supporters.

He is also close to the hardline Saudi clerical establishment which is blamed by Washington for encouraging Islamist ideology.

Even as backroom rivalries play out, some Saudi-based analysts say that the Al Saud family will make sure that any succession will be orderly and preserve the family’s firm grip on power.

“I don’t see any sign of dispute over succession — at least at this point,” said Saudi political analyst Khaled al-Dakhil.

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Hammond and Samia Nakhoul)

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