November 20, 2010

Saudi succession issue looming

Staff Field Marshal Mith'ab bin 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

In one of those "under the radar" news reports that most people ignore, there was a reminder of an issue that will confront Saudi Arabia in the near future - the succession to the throne of the oil-rich kingdom. Given the close relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is in America's national interest that there continues to be smooth transitions of power in Riyadh.

When the kingdom was founded in 1932 by 'Abd al-'Aziz bin 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud (more commonly called "ibn Sa'ud"), the succession was established as the sons of ibn Sa'ud. Normally the oldest surviving son was the first choice. When a king dies, the surviving sons of ibn Sa'ud gather and select the new king by consensus.

That system has been in place since the death of ibn Sa'ud in 1953. With 37 sons, there did not seem to be any urgency to provide for further succession. However, the youngest of ibn Sa'ud's sons (Muqran bin 'Abd al-'Aziz*) is now 65 years old. At some point, the family will need to address how they select a monarch from the next generation. Given the number of sons and the resulting number of grandsons of ibn Sa'ud, it may cause divisions in the family. There are already rivalries among the various groups based on their different mothers.

The frailty of the current king is apparent. Last week, King 'Abdullah turned over command of the Saudi Arabian National Guard to his son. The 86-year old monarch had been the commander of the SANG since 1962 and was responsible for turning it into an effective fighting force. The 2nd SANG Brigade did well in the Battle of al-Khafji against Iraqi forces in 1991.

The National Guard is composed of 260,000 men, mostly drawn from desert tribes, while the regular Saudi army is made up of men primarily from the urban areas. The SANG was developed as a personal protection force for the king and royal family, and has developed into a credible counterbalance against any internal threats emanating from the Saudi military.

The Al Sa'ud have always been concerned with regime (read: family) protection. When I was in Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, we spent an inordinate amount of time answering intelligence requests from the Saudis about numerous improbable threats to the king and other members of the royal family.

How the family handles the succession issue may well decide what threats appear to the continued reign of the Al Sa'ud.

* Prince Muqran bin 'Abd al-'Aziz is the third youngest son and the youngest surviving son of ibn Sa'ud. He is currently the Director General of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate. See my earlier article, Saudi intelligence warnings - seriously?