After Sultan: Saudi Crown Prince Incapacitation Trigger Instability of Absolute Monarchy


A Policy brief by Ali Al-Ahmed and Logan Barclift

The Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Bin AbdulAziz has been rushed abruptly for urgent medical care to Geneva, Switzerland Saturday, a sign of a serious problem that may disturb the succession line in the absolute monarchy and create the possibility for internal instability.

The source of the news was the main opposition group, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) based in London. MIRA published the news on Sunday, one day before the government acknowledged that Sultan is in Geneva for “routine medical tests.” MIRA said that Sultan collapsed on Friday in Morocco, where he has been vacationing for the past few weeks.  It said that he was non-responsive before being rushed to the hospital, and then flown to Geneva Saturday night.

The government statement appears to have been an attempt to take the initiative away from MIRA, the only known-opposition group that controls a satellite broadcast into the country, and calls for the overthrow of the Al-Saud.

Sultan who is 80 years old is overweight and has had several ailments, including an intestinal cancer that required surgery and extended hospitalization in 2004.  The uncertainty of Sultan’s health and possible incapacitation would re-shift the political sands in the desert kingdom.
Sultan’s reputation as corrupt earned him the title of “the Sultan of Thieves.” He holds a long list of official titles; Crown Prince, Minister of Defense, Aviation, and General Inspector, The head of the Supreme Council for the Preservation of Wild Life, the head of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, and the head of the Supreme Council of Islamic Dawah among others. In addition to billions of dollars of kickbacks he earned in the multi-billion arms deals from the United Kingdom and the US, Sultan has been accused of expropriating huge plots of land across the country from common citizens.

Sultan’s health troubles have handed King Abdullah the opportunity to dismiss him as crown prince, a choice that would activate the Succession Commission, which has been promulgated by Abdullah in October of 2006 and went into effect in December 2007. Currently, Abdullah has the authority to dismiss Sultan for any reason, but Sultan’s ill health would provide Abdullah with the necessary justification for his dismissal.

If Sultan is incapacitated by death or extreme health problems, a new crown prince must be chosen by the Succession Commission. The commission is headed by Abdullah’s brother and ally Mishael and managed by Khalid Al-Twaijri, its general secretary appointed by the King and his longtime personal assistant.

Additionally, Abdullah and his non-Sudayri brothers would want to diminish the power of the Sudayri clan, who would be at a weaker position after losing their leader, Sultan.

Sultan, who has been crown prince since August of 2005, leads the Sudayri clan, the most powerful block among the Al-Saud branches.  His demise will diminish the power and influence of the Sudayris allowing King Abdullah and his allies to pass the throne to another branch. With Sultan out of the succession line, the Sudayris will most likely not provide the next monarch.

The Sudayris get the name from their mother, Hussa Ahmad Al-Sudayri, who was one of the favorite wives of King Abdul Aziz.  The Sudayri branch included the late King Fahd and the current powerful interior minister, Naif.  Other members hold powerful positions within the government including, the governor of the capital Riyadh, and the oil-rich Eastern Province.

The Succession
Sultan’s hospitalization and possible demise would bring additional challenges to the stability of the country that is facing a multitude of issues casting a shadow of uncertainty on its future.

The death of Sultan would complicate the internal dynamics of the Al-Saud ruling tribe. This would be the first time that the crown prince dies before the King or is dismissed by him. While the Sudayris would want to install another Sudayri in place of Sultan, other brothers would want to move in their candidates on the coveted position.

According to Mr. Saad Al-Fagih the head of MIRA, who broke the news, Sultan’s death will make the picking of the next crown prince an issue of contention among the rival clans of Al-Saud. This could split the family even further, as a non-Sudayri crown prince would mark the decline of their powerful reign. It would be the first time since 1975 that they wouldn’t hold either the position of King or crown prince.

After the death of the country’s founder, King AbdulAziz, every king who ruled came from a different branch of the ruling tribe. Only King Fahd and Crown Prince Sultan are full brothers, but his possible demise or incapacitation will diminish the chances for another Sudayri monarch.

The Young Choice
With the Sudayris moving to the bench other branch are providing a new type of candidates who are both the sons of AbdulAziz, but are young enough to rule for decades. Such a crossover choice is Prince Muqrin Bin AbdulAziz. Muqrin who currently serves as the head of General Intelligence Presidency is the youngest of King AbdulAziz sons who are active in the government.  Muqrin, who is a close associate of King Abdullah, is a military pilot and has been the governor of two provinces before been appointed as head of intelligence in October 2005 following.

Muqrin earned a reputation for being among the most liberal sons of AbdulAziz. His recent visit to Washington was in February 2007 where he met with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Ali Al-Ahmed is the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs
Logan Barclift is a policy analyst at the institute for Gulf Affairs

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