|King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud|
Saudi Arabia's King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud* has been hospitalized to treat a lung infection and reportedly is using tracheal intubation to assist in his breathing. The monarch is 90 years of age and in declining health. The issue of succession always arises when a Saudi king takes ill.
The term "king" has not been accurate since the title was officially changed in 1986 to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (خادم الحرمين الشريفين - khadam al-haramayn al-sharifayn), a declaration that the Saudi head of state is also entrusted with the protection of the two holiest sites in Islam - the mosques in Mecca and Medina. For the sake of convention, I will use the commonly accepted western term of king.
In March of 2014, King 'Abdullah appointed his half-brother Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud** as the kingdom's deputy crown prince, a new position. Muqrin will be second in line for the Saudi throne after 'Abdullah's death. 'Abdullah will be succeeded by another half-brother, Crown Prince Salman.
Crown Prince Salman is now 79. I think it safe to assume that it will not be long before King 'Abdullah passes and Prince Salman ascends to the throne. At that point, Prince Muqrin will become the crown prince. Muqrin, at age 69, is the third youngest son of the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. More to the point, he is the youngest surviving son.
Muqrin is a former captain in the Royal Saudi Air Force - an F-15 pilot - and was recently the chief of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (the "mukhabarat"). During his tenure at GID, Saudi Arabia defeated an al-Qa'idah insurgency and drove the militants out of the Kingdom (most went to Yemen). The prince is hawkish on Iran and has encouraged the United States to take a harder line with Iran and the Shi'a state's ambition to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
When the kingdom was founded in 1932, King 'Abd al-'Aziz established the succession to be among his sons, from brother to brother, not from father to son. Normally the oldest surviving son was the first choice, but not always. When kings have died, the surviving sons of King 'Abd al-'Aziz have gathered and selected the new king by consensus.
This system has been in place since the death of King 'Abd al-'Aziz in 1953. With 37 sons that reached adulthood (there were 45 total), there did not seem to be any urgency to provide for further succession. However, since the youngest of the surviving sons, Prince Muqran, is now 69 years old, the family will need to come to terms with selecting a monarch from the next generation - that may cause divisions in the family. There are already rivalries among the various groups based on their different mothers - 'Abd al-'Aziz had 22 wives.
Given the close relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the past 70 years - although somewhat strained during the Obama years - it is in America's national interest that there continue to be smooth transitions of power in Riyadh.
The Saudi leadership and the Obama administration have differing thoughts on the issues of Iran, Syria and Egypt, although they have joined the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). To that end, Saudi fighter aircraft have participated in airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. The Saudis are understandably concerned about ISIS - the group has vowed to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, and Saudi Arabia is a major recruiting ground for the Islamist group.
To address the succession issue, in 2006 King 'Abdullah created the Allegiance Council, comprised of 35 princes charged with determining, in consultation with the king, the line of succession. With the selection of Muqrin as the deputy crown prince, they have exhausted the supply of brothers, the first generation sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. When Muqrin dies, the real issue will surface - who in the second generation becomes the king?
No matter who is chosen from the hundreds of men that make up the second generation - the grandsons of founder King 'Abd al-'Aziz - there will be a power struggle in Riyadh. Hopefully, it can be resolved without lasting damage to the monarchy and threatening the stability of the Kingdom.
* This article is an update of a piece I wrote in March 2014: Saudi Arabia succession issue - it's coming....)
** Note the difference in the transliterations of the Arabic al- and Al. In the name 'Abd al-'Aziz, al- is the Arabic definite article "the." The word Al in Al Sa'ud is Arabic for "house of" or "family."