Policy Brief: Saudi Crown Prince Serious Illness Complicates Succession Matters Again

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By Joshua Jacobs

Washington DC. March 6, 2012

Royal Pains

The riskiness of having an aging pool of candidates, long a concern about Saudi Arabia, finally appears to be catching up to the al-Saud. More and more, it appears as though the problems at the heart of the Saudi succession process were not avoided last year, they were merely postponed to a date in the very near future with the news of the deteriorating health of the ongoing Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz.

Naif, the presumptive heir to the Saudi throne, left the Kingdom last Thursday on a tightly guarded trip billed by the royal court as a ‘private vacation’. The trip however is believed by IGA to have been prompted by a critical health emergency, speculated by some to have been a severe stroke.

Naif is believed to be convalescing in Tangier, Morocco with his two sons and entourage, while preparing to travel to the United States for urgent medical care. The prince is no stranger to poor health, having struggled with leukemia and border-line obesity for much of the past few years.

As a result he has made numerous trips to the United States to tend to his medical conditions. However according to IGA sources this is not a routine medical visit, and the incident is believed to be severe. Severe health concerns have become a common theme at the top of the Saudi ruling family.

To the informed observer this series of events appears to be eerily reminiscent of what occurred with Crown Prince Sultan late last year, and ended with Naif succeeding to his current position. The former Crown Prince was known to be increasingly ill and incapacitated struggling with both intestine cancer and an unknown degenerative mental disease. The prince was quietly shuttled to Morocco, and then onward to New York for an ‘undisclosed surgery’. He returned to a palace in Agadir, Morocco to recuperate, before leaving for another round of treatment in New York. The prince later died at New York Presbyterian Hospital. The use of Morocco as a royal medical pit-stop appears to be a recurring theme in the ruling family. King Abdullah routinely shuttled between the United States and Morocco after his back surgeries, spending extended amounts of time recuperating there.

The Prince and Succession

The current Crown Prince is normally held up as an exemplar of conservatism within the al-Saud. Naif is widely touted as an opponent of social and political reform, mistrustful of the United States and the West, and sympathetic to the religious firebrands in the Kingdom. While much of this reputation is undoubtedly well earned, the prince has also been known for his pragmatic streak. The campaign on al-Qaeda, the crackdown on sympathetic extremist clerics, and his reformatory programs for former terrorists have all garnered sincere accolades in the West.

IGA has also come into possession of a document detailing an exchange between Naif and Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz the head of the Kingdoms General Intelligence Presidency, the leading intelligence bureau in Saudi Arabia. Muqrin, a close aid to the King, is believed by many to be a liberal within the family, however the exchange illustrates an interesting divide between the two half-brothers. The letters discuss how a situation involving Shia instigation in the Eastern Province should be handled. In the exchange Muqrin argued for a much stronger and harsher approach, but was vetoed by Naif. While an isolated example, it may point to a pragmatism that would become more apparent upon his assumption of the throne. It is also worth noting that King Abdullah, now touted as a liberal, was once feared as a real conservative in the al-Saud.

However with Naif apparently ill, the uncertainty that has plagued the Saudi succession process is once more brought into full view. When Sultan died late last year, Naif was the heir apparent having slipped into his role as a ‘consensus’ candidate by King Abdullah in an effort to avoid familial squabbles. However it is also true that there are relatively few options left at the top of the ruling family. Virtually all of the senior members of the al-Saud are in advanced age and suffering from numerous medical problems. The next in line for example is considered by some to be Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, the prince however suffers from serious medical issues and is already 77 years old.  After Naif there are no clear consensus candidates, and thus the possibility of a factional battle for power becomes more plausible.

Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs

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