Saudi Arabia:the Succession Crisis is heating up after a successful Haj / Zvi Mazel

Last week saw the successful completion of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj. In stark contrast to previous years there were no disasters, no terror attacks and no political demonstrations to mar the feast. All was not well however. As the ceremonies were about to begin, a communiqué from the official news agency informed the people of Saudi Arabia that their king, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, eldest living son of famed King Ibn Saud, was unwell. Allegedly suffering from a slipped disk, the aging monarch (he was born in 1924) was ordered to rest by his physicians. Therefore the minister of the interior, Emir Naef bin Abdul Aziz, already second deputy Prime Minister, (the King is formally Prime Minister) was entrusted with supervising the pilgrimage and took the King’s place for the traditional reception of the heads of the pilgrims delegations.

Emir Naef is “only” the fifth in the royal order of succession and the task should have been handed over to his brother and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Sultan, first deputy Prime Minister. However for the past two years Sultan, who is recovering from cancer surgery, has been living in his Moroccan palace. He is 83 years old himself. It has become increasingly clear that something would have to be done to rejuvenate the leadership of a kingdom facing a number or urgent issues, from modernizing the administration and the economy to fighting radical Islam inspired by Al Qaeda on the one hand and facing up to a nuclear Iran on the other. For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, both the ruler and his designated successor are unable to fulfill their duties.

Under the supervision of Naef, the pilgrimage went off almost without a hitch and the Saudi leaders could congratulate themselves. After all, dealing with the nearly three million pilgrims coming for seven to ten days is no easy task. The visitors move together from Mecca and its great mosque to the other three locations where the ceremonies are held - Mount Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina - situated several miles north-west of that city. At Mount Arafat, where Mohammed delivered his last sermon, the faithful pray and renew their allegiance to Allah; At Muzdalifah, they gather the stones to be used for next day ritual at Mina, where they stone the pillar representing the devil. Of the 2.8 million people who participated this year, 1.8 million came from 108 different countries and the rest from Saudi Arabia itself – most of them foreigners living in the Kingdom. A small number of pilgrims died because of the heat and the stress, and there was a fire caused by a negligent cook, but that was all. In the past, thousands had died during the feast – from epidemics, buildings falling down, people being crushed by stampeding crowds. In 1990, 1400 people died when a bridge collapsed; in 1997, a fire in a camping site killed 300 pilgrims in Mina. The worse incident took place in 1979. A group of Saudi militants led by a self-proclaimed Mahdi (the prophet or redeemer who will come to earth before the Day of Judgment) stormed the Great Mosque of Mecca. It took two weeks of deadly fighting and hundreds of dead on both sides to defeat them. More recently, Iranian pilgrims sent by Teheran to foment troubles demonstrated, chanting death to Israel and death to America. Saudi leaders did not hesitate and had the leaders executed.

Saudi kings are well aware of their difficult mission. They wear the proud name of “Keepers of Islam’s two Holy Sites” (Mecca and Medina) and since the early seventies, they have been working hard to develop the infrastructures needed for the yearly pilgrimage. The two great mosques were restored and their surface expanded in order to accommodate the throngs who have to circle seven times the Kaaba, the black stone at the heart of the Mecca mosque or to pray at the tomb of the Prophet in the mosque at Medina. More recently, new modern roads allow for the swift passage of the busses carrying the pilgrims. Thousands of way stations offer refreshments and a chance to rest. A multi-tier bridge at Mina let the casting of the stones ritual go on with none of the pilgrims being wounded where in the past thousands had died in the crush. A new light railway linking Mecca to the three neighboring cities, built by Chinese engineer at a cost of 1.8 billion dollar, was inaugurated just before the pilgrimage. Tens of thousands of pilgrims made their way in comfort, avoiding the crowded roads.

To protect the visitors against Al Qaeda, which had threatened to launch terror attacks, Saudi leaders reinforced the police, increased security measures and deployed a hundred thousand security personnel in the field. Al Qaeda then declared it would not target the pilgrimage. Prince Naef, who had been put in charge as we saw earlier, did not relax his efforts; security personnel managed to foil terror attempts which would have disrupted the pilgrimage and severely embarrassed the kingdom.

The governor of Mecca, Prince Khalid al Faysal Bin Abdel Aziz, expressed the satisfaction and the relief of the king and his entourage at the peaceful ending of the feast when he praised both the overall organization and the safety measures.

However, important as that was, the successful pilgrimage was only a lull in the ongoing battle for the royal succession. Now the health of the king is more than ever a source of worry and intrigue. King Abdullah ascended the throne in 2005, when he was nearing 80. His health was already a source of concern. The alleged slipped disk he suffers from today is all the more worrying. The situation must be dire, since together with the announcement that the ailing monarch would be travelling to the United States for an operation came the startling news that his heir, Prince Sultan, himself a very sick man, was coming from Morocco to assume the mantle in his absence, but he is in no state to rule. It has become imperative to agree on a new crown prince who will be able to take over. Allegedly recovering in the States from a successful operation, King Abdullah himself is well aware of the state of affair and in 2006 set up, with the consent of his brothers (his potential successors) an Allegiance committee empowered to designate a new heir to the throne and even to rule the country in the interim period. The King also appointed last year Prince Naef – the Minister of the Interior for the past 30 years – as second deputy Prime Minister, which made him the third most important personage of the realm, though he is only the fifth in the order of succession. That makes Naef in the eyes of many as the de facto heir to the throne.

According to the basic law of the country, set down by King Fahd in 1972, it must be ruled by the descendants of King Abdel Aziz Al Saud governing according to Islamic Law (sharia), the Koran being the country’s constitution. The Allegiance committee comprised of the sons and grandsons of Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, never convened, in order not to make public the differences of opinion in the royal family. The other remaining older sons of the king, some of them are governors of the main provinces, see themselves as entitled to rule because of their age and their closeness to the old leader. They are unhappy at the promotion of their brother Naef over their heads. Naef is a good administrator and has shown himself capable of ruling the country; he won much praise for his successful fight against terror threats from Al Qaeda. Nevertheless he is nearing 80. Waiting in the wings are younger hopefuls, the king’s son Miteb, who was appointed only last week by his father head of the National Guard, keeper of the country’s internal security, and Naef’s own son, who is in charge of combating terror under the guidance of his father. Crown Prince Sultan himself has sons and may well want one of them to succeed him if he ascends the throne.

The kingdom is uneasily awaiting new developments. Prince Naef’s appointment to represent the king was only temporary and will end with the return of Prince Sultan. So what would happened in case of a sudden crisis, economic or security related? Who would take the all important, urgent decisions? The King could have designated Naef as his successor, or he could have convened the Allegiance committee to choose someone more acceptable to the whole family. He did neither.

Zvi Mazel

Former Ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.Fellow of the Jerusalem center of Public Affairs

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters (without spaces) shown in the image.