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Saudi Arabia's Ailing Gerontocracy

The age and illness of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia have raised anew the concern that the fate of the world's key oil producer is now in the hands of an ailing gerontocracy. Wilson Center Senior Scholar David Ottaway analyzes the line to the Saudi crown.

The age and illness of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia have raised anew the concern that the fate of the world's key oil producer is now in the hands of an ailing gerontocracy. Bed-ridden in a New York City hospital, the king at 87 is recovering from an operation to repair a herniated disc and remove a blood clot.

Those next in line to become king are not well, either. The kingdom's crown prince and defense minister, Prince Sultan, 86, has been fighting cancer for the past several years and spent all of 2009 in American hospitals or recovering in Morocco. The person apparently in waiting to become the next crown prince, interior minister Prince Nayef, 77, is also in failing health. All three are among the 44 sons of the revered King Abdulaziz al-Saud, the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia who died in 1953.

Outsiders have been speculating intensely for several years whether the kingdom is on the cusp of a major generational shift in leadership and a scramble for power that could rock the stability of the 266-year-old House of Saud. Since the country holds one quarter of the world's oil reserves and has the largest production capacity at 12.5 million barrels a day, there are good reasons for concern.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is the main Arab military counterweight to Iran in the Persian Gulf and crucial to U.S. plans to contain the emerging Iranian nuclear threat. The Obama administration has just won congressional approval for the sale of up to $60 billion in arms to the kingdom, the largest single U.S. foreign military deal ever.

The answers to questions about future Saudi leadership and the kingdom's stability are not the same for the immediate future as for a few years hence. There are still several sons of the late King Abdulaziz with good credentials to become king. But the generational turnover and the scramble for positioning has begun and certain to accelerate in the next few years as the last of King Abdulaziz's aging 16 sons retire or die.

The prospect of a power struggle breaking out in the kingship scramble is more likely to happen when the House of Saud has to choose its leader from among King Abdulaziz's 19 grandsons. That historic choice is still at least several years off, maybe even a full decade away.

There are some dissident sons of King Abdulaziz challenging the Saudi establishment from the outside like the 75-year-old Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, once dubbed the "Red Prince," who in 2007 threatened to form his own political party to promote greater democracy. Parties are banned in the kingdom, and he was convinced by the current king to drop his explosive proposal. There are also noted liberals like Prince Talal's son, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, 55, ranking as the world's 19th richest billionaire and pushing for reform from within. However, neither is well placed politically to become a contender in the pending royal sweepstakes.

At the top of the "old guard" list stands Prince Salman, 74, the governor of Riyadh, the kingdom's central heartland, since 1962. He has long been the family peacemaker and led the inner council of the House of Saud. He has the added distinction of belonging to the powerful Sudairi clan—seven brothers sharing the same mother—to which Crown Prince Sultan and Prince Nayef also belong. One possible shortcoming: Salman, too, has been suffering from back problems and just underwent surgery in the United States.

Another likely contender is Prince Muqrin. At 65, he is the youngest living son of King Abdulaziz and has been head of Saudi General Intelligence since 2005. Muqrin was a distinguished British-trained pilot who made his career in the Royal Saudi Air Force before becoming governor first of Hail Province in 1980 and then of the Muslim holy city of Medina in 1999. He has been responsible for Saudi attempts to mediate between the Afghan government and the Taliban. He also deals with the kingdom's evolving nuclear strategy.

As the murky process of leadership change unfolds, Saudi watchers are focusing particularly on the competition between the remaining elderly sons of King Abdulaziz with some claim to the kingship and his younger, up-and-coming grandsons who hold senior positions under their fathers in the key ministries of defense and interior and in the Royal National Guard. They sit together on the new 35-man Allegiance Council that King Abdullah set up in 2006 to help select future crown princes.

The question is whether King Abdullah set a precedent this November when he relinquished his command of the Royal National Guard—a post he had held since 1962—to his own son, Prince Miteb, 57, rather than to his brother and long-serving deputy, Prince Badr, 77, who resigned at the same time.

Still to be determined is who will take over for Prince Sultan as defense minister. The two contenders are his son, Khalid, 61, assistant minister since 2001 and Abdul Rahman, 79, deputy minister since 1978 and another son of the kingdom's founder. Right now, the betting is heavily in his son's favor. Khalid became known to Americans in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. He served as co-commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces with U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf.

A similar face-off exists within the Interior Ministry, where Prince Nayef, in line to become the next crown prince, has been minister since 1975. Prince Ahmed, 70, is deputy minister and a full brother of Nayef within the powerful Sudairi clan. However, Nayef's son, Muhammed, 51, the hero of the highly successful Saudi campaign to crush al-Qaeda inside the kingdom, is thought most likely to emerge as the next interior minister. He escaped miraculously in August 2009 from an assassination attempt by a Saudi Islamic extremist who blew himself up while only a few feet away.

There also has been much speculation about the kingly prospects of Saudi Arabia's two former ambassadors to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, 61, son of the defense minister, and Prince Turki al-Faisal, 65, longtime Saudi intelligence chief and brother of foreign minister Saud al-Faisal.

Bandar is presently national security adviser to King Abdullah but has been estranged from family politics, having just returned to the kingdom after a two-year absence. Prince Turki, who still comes regularly to Washington, is regarded as a possible replacement for foreign minister Prince Saud, who has long been suffering from Parkinson's disease. However, neither seems destined to become a kingly contender in the immediate future.

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