On Saturday, October 22nd Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz died while in New York undergoing medical treatment, reportedly for colon cancer. The death has come at a time when tensions are high in the region and the Saudi’s are keener than ever to secure their ruling position. Prince Sultan’s death has also been an opportunity for other countries to renew their ties with Saudi Arabia, including the United States and Pakistan.
The US sent a high-powered delegation to Riyadh, headed by Vice President Joe Biden to condole with King Abdullah, and renew their ties of friendship and partnership with the Al Saud family. Earlier, Hillary Clinton had led a similar high-level delegation to Pakistan, to ease tensions between US and Pakistan over affairs related to its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton’s and Joes Biden’s visits to the region can be seen as setting the foundation for the new American security architecture that would follow its planned withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.
This analysis examines the Saudi succession plan and the new American security architecture for the region.
Despite the Middle East going through an intense shift in the balance of power, the death of Crown Prince Sultan is not likely to cause many ripples in the Saudi kingdom. The Prince was ailing from quite some times, with reports that he was on life support for the past month, so King Abdullah has had time to consider the consequences.
In 2006 King Abdullah set up the Allegiance Council in a bid to give the complex Saudi succession process some transparency. The Allegiance Council was also created to avoid issues of succession that nearly crippled the al Saud family hold on the peninsula in the late 1890’s. It appears that the Allegiance Council has served its purpose in this regard, with Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud named as the new Crown Prince just days after Prince Sultan passes away.
Unlike other monarchies, the Saudi succession line does not go directly from father to son; rather it has follows a line of brothers, son’s of King Abdul-Aziz, who died in 1953. This has been a cause for concern in the Saudi Royal family, as the remaining sons of Abdul-Aziz are mostly too old or inexperienced to govern. The Allegiance Council has gone most of the way to alleviating this problem, as it has opened the possibility of some of the grandsons of Abdul-Aziz as candidates for the throne.
The Allegiance Council is comprised of 37 members: sons of Abdul-Aziz, or the eldest son of any of Abdul-Aziz’s sons who have died, as well as some of the sons of King Abdullah and the late Crown Prince Sultan.
Crown Prince Nayef was elected by the Allegiance Council in a meeting with King Abdullah, and it was reported via state television that Nayef was the new Crown Prince. Nayef is 78 years old, and has been the Interior Minister for Saudi Arabia since 1975. He will continue to hold this post, as well as becoming the vice Prime Minister.
Nayef is a controversial figure in the west, at once lauded for his non-tolerance of Islamic extremist cells in Saudi Arabia, while also being censured for anti-Jewish remarks back in 2002, and his well-known sentiments about the position of women in public life. Nayef has also been in opposition to a number of King Abdullah’s reforms, including the opening of a coeducational university.
While it is unlikely that he will repeal reforms instigated by King Abdullah, there is also little likelihood that there will be more reforms or moves toward openness should Nayef become King.
It remains to be seen whether Crown Prince Nayef will ever actually take the crown. While King Abdullah is 87 years old, Nayef himself is aging, although reportedly in good health. It is worth watching who is given the position of second deputy premier, as there is a strong correlation with this position in the government and Crown Princes in the making.
Prince Nayef’s younger brother, Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz is tipped as being the most eligible for the throne after Nayef, at 75 years old and with plenty of experience as the Governor of Riyadh.
The death of Prince Sultan has put an unusual amount of attention on the Saudi royals abroad. This has the potential to be detrimental to the Saudis, who are considered ultraconservative on such issues as gender equality and civil rights. However, the strong show of support from the US has possibly been instrumental in keeping any backlash against the royals to a minimum.
The New US Security Architecture for the Region
The death of Prince Sultan has provided a diplomatic opportunity to friends and neighbors of the Saudi peninsula.
The US sent a high-powered delegation to Riyadh, headed by Vice President Joe Biden to condole with King Abdullah, and renew their ties of friendship and partnership with the Al Saud family. Media reports indicates the delegation included CIA director David Petraeus, Senator John McCain, Clinton-era defense secretary William Cohen, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, and head CENTCOM General James Mattis.
The visit from Joe Biden’s delegation would go a long way towards improving US-Saudi relations that were tense over how the Americans disowned its former ally Hosni Mubarak.
US President Barack Obama was full of praise for the Saudi royals in his statement following Prince Sultan’s death:
“As Minister of Defense and Aviation for almost 50 years, Crown Prince Sultan dedicated himself to the welfare and security of his people and country and was a valued friend of the United States,” Obama’s statement read. “He was a strong supporter of the deep and enduring partnership between our two countries forged almost seven decades ago in the historic meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abd al-Aziz Al Saud.”
The US here is being crystal clear in their support for the monarchy, despite the numerous civil and gender rights problems in the country. The show of support and friendship from the US was also a signal to the rest of the region, and the Saudi population that the US is dug-in with the Saudis and condemnation of the monarchy would not be forthcoming in the event of an Arab Spring movement in the kingdom, as was the case with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had led a similar high-powered delegation to Pakistan, to ease tensions between US and Pakistan over affairs related to its withdrawal from Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari left his family, themselves mourning the passing of his mother-in-law and wife of Pakistan’s iconic president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto just days before, to attend the funeral of Prince Sultan in Riyadh. Pakistan has been amping-up its diplomatic effort with Saudi Arabia, and the gesture of leaving his own bereaved family to attend the funeral will not go unnoticed by the Saudis.
Hillary Clinton’s and Joes Biden’s visits to the region can be seen as setting the foundation of a broader security architecture that would follow US planned withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. This framework appears to have two-fold overt focus: continue to counter the terrorist threat and contain Iran. The Saudi dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is to play an integral role in this new architecture, with contingent of US forces placed in various Gulf countries. In all likelihood, US would also like to maintain a base in Afghanistan even after withdrawal, an approach unlikely to be welcomed by regional actors and Taliban. This US premise could also become a sticking point in the upcoming Istanbul and Bonn conferences on the way forward in Afghanistan.
In this context, it would be interesting to observe how US deals with Iranian stakes in Afghanistan. It should be noted that cooperation between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan had been growing before the assassination of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul on September 20th. Pakistan has lately devoted considerable efforts towards improving its relations with Iran. As stated previously, there can be no lasting settlement of the Afghan conflict without consideration for the interests of its two important neighbors, Iran and Pakistan. Additionally, with tensions running high between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Turkey and Iran on Syria, the role of Turkey is likely to dominate.