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Saudi Arabia: King’s illness ignites conflict among royal factions

No one is more capable of understanding the Al Saud than the Al Saud themselves. There are some very specific and extremely weird traditions that govern the relations among the members of the royal family. When at ease, they master the art of “lying to each other” and in tough times they master the art of “exchanging indirect messages”. They are united by the apprehension for their common destiny and are disunited by their love for power in all its forms. This is the game of “specificity” that is played within a family in which the smooth transfer of power is an “exception”. The sickness of the king in the kingdom of silence is not an ordinary news story because it is the story of the long and complex power struggle among the main factions of the royal family.

Minutes had hardly passed since the announcement that the Saudi monarch was admitted to hospital (for some medical tests) on 31 December 2014 when social network websites, twitter in particular, caught alight with hashtags linked to the king’s health condition. Mujtahid’s treasure box was immediately opened releasing its contents of ‘secrets’, ‘wishes’, ‘positions’ and ‘fabrications’ giving way to a blazing war of ‘speculations’ in the virtual world of cyberspace about the fate of the king.

This was not the first time the war of rumours raged over a tale whose title is “The King’s Demise”. Toward the end of March 2014 similar rumours flared up about the king’s abdication because of incapacity and about (his brother) Salman taking over. In early April 2014, “an official source” close to the king denied the abdication report and alluded to the source of the rumour while responding to those who quoted the article about the incapacity of the king (in the statute of the Allegiance Council). He insisted that “he [King Abdullah] was, however, still able to govern competently and ably.”

It is worth noting that Article 11 of the Allegiance Council Statute states that “when the Allegiance Council is convinced that the King is no longer capable of exercising his powers due to health reasons, the Council undertakes to commission a medical committee to prepare a medical report. If it is proven that the King is incapacitated and that this is a temporary condition, the Council will prepare a report confirming this and the King’s powers will be transferred to the Crown Prince. Yet, if the medical report proves that the King is permanently incapacitated the Council will call for giving allegiance to the Crown Prince as King of the nation.”

It is clear that the Sudairi faction is appealing to this article in order to force the faction loyal to King Abdullah to agree to a “settlement” upon the consideration that the Allegiance Council statute is the point of reference that enjoys consensus within the royal family and not the King’s decrees. This is despite the fact that the Allegiance Council’s mandate begins in the aftermath of the death of both the King and his Crown Prince. The Statute was created during the tenure of the former Crown Prince, Sultan, who died in October 2011. His death gave the King an opportunity to exercise his powers in accordance with the Governance Statute issued in March 1992. The King appointed as a Crown Prince his brother Nayif in October 2011 and when he passed away in June 2012 he appointed his other brother Salman as Crown Prince. Both are from the Sudairi faction. The latter did not consider the decision by the King to appoint them a violation of the Allegiance Council statute. In their contention with the King’s faction, the Sudairis insist on adopting this system as a point of reference.

It should be noted that the conflict between the Allegiance Council Statute and the Royal Decree pertaining to the appointment of the successor to the Crown Prince is that the first states that in the case of the sickness of the King and the Crown Prince, temporary authority is transferred to the Council while with regard to the second it is transferred to Muqrin. This explains the insistence of the Sudairi faction that medical tests should be restricted to the King’s mental abilities so as to prove or otherwise rule out his incapacity and therefore decide whether he remains king or abdicates.

In any case, the Royal Court’s communique issued on 2 January 2015 pulls the rug from underneath the attempt by the Sudairi faction to exploit the sickness of the King in order to bring pressure to bear on his faction and extract gains. This is the first time the Royal Court announces clearly and speedily the nature of the King’s sickness, the treatment he is receiving and his health condition. The Court’s communique stated that “there is a pulmonary inflammation that necessitated the insertion of a temporary auxiliary respiratory tube. The procedure has, by the grace of Allah, all praise is due to Him, been crowned with stability and success.”

The King’s faction was not concerned with the “transparency” referred to in the communique. The King did in fact appear in February 2014, in a meeting with US President Barak Obama, with the respiration auxiliary tube clearly in place. This had not been pre-announced. In fact, the Royal Court’s communique about the King’s sickness and his treatment has overlooked another page from the Allegiance Council and that is the one pertaining to the formation of a medical committee to assess the King’s health condition and consequently decide whether he is still able to perform his duties. It might therefore be concluded that the insistence upon releasing reports about the King’s health condition could be a premeditated measure because there would be within the Sudairi faction those who might undertake to release other news reports. The communique wanted to put an end to rumours and more importantly to convey a message to the contending Sudairi faction that the King’s sickness does not warrant abdication and that his condition is table.

It is worth noting that the war of rumours this time exposes in an overt manner a high level of raging conflict between the faction loyal to King Abdullah and the Sudairi faction. It is well known that those who talk about the King’s abdication from power or even about his death are individuals affiliated with the Sudairi faction. On the other hand, those who engage in denying any of this are hawks from within the King’s faction. The objective is clear: to pave the way for a fair settlement for the Sudairis in an endeavour to avert the unknown.

As for the scenarios of the transfer of power in Saudi Arabia, it would be possible to say that these appear limited and well known. The worst case scenario occurred during the reign of King Saud when the royal family was divided into factions. Power could only be transferred when the balance of power tilted in favour of Faisal’s faction and upon the intervention of internal as well as external parties (principally the United States of America). Settling the dispute required the intervention of the clergy in the dispute in favour of Faisal who was closely linked through kinship on his mother’s side to the Al Al-Sheikh clan.

None of the remaining reigns experienced an abdication. This was simply out of the question. King Fahd, who ascended to the throne in 1982 continued to be sovereign for a whole decade (1996 to 2005) despite having suffered a brain blood clot that incapacitated him mentally as well as physically. He, nevertheless, remained King until the last day of his life.

It is true that the King is unwell, but he had already put in place a water-tight plan to pave the way for his own son, Mit’ib, to ascend to the throne including the appointment of a number of his other sons in crucial positions such as the Emir of Mecca, the Emir of Riyadh, the deputy foreign minister, etc… Yet, the King’s faction is apprehensive about a hidden plan by the Sudairi faction that will, upon the death of the King, undo all the changes he made since he ascended to the throne. Three scenarios seem likely in the circumstance.

The first scenario is that the King will remain in his position up to the very end. In this case the transfer of power will occur according to the established tradition. However, this scenario does not guarantee including Prince Mit’ib in the succession line after Prince Miqrin, the current successor to the Crown Prince. This matter would be within the powers of the next sovereign (expected to be Salman) who would be entitled to appoint whoever he deems appropriate in the position of the second deputy. It is certain that he will not choose a person from within Abdullah’s faction. His choice will be anyone from among the members of the Sudairi faction.

The second scenario would involve the abdication of the King provided his son Mit’ib is appointed as a successor to the Crown Prince and provided this is stated within the same articles that refer to Miqrin’s appointment. In this way, this decision would be binding upon the next king and cannot be altered. This scenario is considered acceptable because it has the potential to salvage the situation. However, the Sudairi faction fears that once Miqrin becomes king and Mit’ib becomes his crown prince the chances of the Sudairi’s would become almost non-existent.

The third scenario would be to pursue the Qatari approach whereby the King and his Crown Prince would abdicate and Miqrin would become King, Mit’ib his Crown Prince, while Muhammad bin Nayif or any other person from within the Sudairi faction is appointed as second deputy. Those who expect power to transfer from the King to Salman free of charge will have to wait very long. The same applies to those who count on the Allegiance Council, which was intended by the King when it was formed to merely postpone the appointment of a second deputy. However, in the aftermath of a power sharing deal between him and Nayif the Council was surpassed and the latter was appointed by decree as second deputy and then as crown prince without going back to the council.

Undoubtedly, the Sudairi faction would want to expedite the transfer of power before the King recovered as this would be an opportunity to sack some and appoint others. Perhaps what frightens the Sudairi faction more than anything else is that the King might resort to issuing decrees that will lead to disempowering the Sudairis altogether. Should he resort to this, he would be finishing off what he started several years ago when he sought to undermine the Sudairi faction by means of a well-orchestrated plan of dismissals and appointments. For this reason the Sudairis are expected to continue offering proposals to the King’s faction in search for a compromise of some sort. In the meantime, they will keep insisting on conducting medical tests for the King so as to build on the results.

Repercussions of the King’s demise

First: A crack within the royal family

King Abdullah established himself as a decisive and dominant personality within the royal family. None of the princes could compete with him let alone clash with him. He benefited from this unique position to effect unprecedented essential and major changes to the power structure. In doing so he exhausted his historic rival, the Sudairi faction, which has lost, in addition to the death of a number of its most senior representatives, the opportunity to monopolise the throne or as long as possible. Here lies the crisis that will ensue after the death of King Abdullah. He, in fact, created a problem for those that will succeed him. There are many disgruntled princes who are unhappy with King Abdullah’s policies of sackings and appointments. What prevents them from publicly expressing discontent is the powerful personality of the King himself and the symbolism he represents within the Al Saud household and within a sizeable segment of the public. In conclusion, it is likely that a power struggle will ensue between the factions following the King’s death and this may have repercussions on the cohesion and unity of the royal family.

Second: The economic challenge

King Abdullah succeeded, partly, in containing public discontent as a result of the living hardships a large section of citizens have been going through. Social welfare awards and grants offered to students to study abroad have eased public frustrations to some extent. This is despite the fact that these facilities have been much lower than expected (principally in the economic and political spheres) by the overwhelming majority of citizens at the time when King Abdullah ascended to the throne in August 2005. This is not to be dissociated from the context of the decline in oil revenue, the state’s decision to remove subsidies on basic commodities, especially on fuel; to stop bonuses and salary rises; to levy high taxes on electricity, water and telephone bills; and stop development projects that have to do with infrastructure and services. In view of all of this it is likely that there will be renewed social rebellion and this will take various forms, including idleness with all that this term means, a rise in the level of rampant corruption across government institutions and a slowing in growth rates and what might accompany this of social and economic repercussions.

Third: Security vulnerability

In view of the absence of a charismatic leadership and the economic difficulties the country is going through, and these are likely to escalate in the near future, as well as the unstable regional conditions and the increasing threat posed by ISIL to Saudi Arabia internally; the Kingdom will be facing serious security threats that may undermine its political stability.

Translated from The New Khalij newspaper newspaper, 8 January, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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