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On Saudi succession and the new generation 18, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Back in the day when interpreting the whims and mood of the Kremlin was of obvious importance the pseudo-science of Kremlinology emerged. When the Politburo went to the Bolshoi Ballet, was this a sign that all was well or a sign that they were trying to present a normal facade because everything was really going wrong or it was a triple bluff in that all was going well but they wanted to present the notion that it wasn’t and they knew…etc etc etc.

The nadir of Kremlinology was, of course, the whopping lack of predictions of the fall of the Soviet Union. (Though a stout mention ought to go to a female American scholar whose name I’ve forgotten who published a wholly bogus if well received book charting the intricate ties between the Kremlin and any and all guerrilla movements around the world, proving Soviet perfidy in a rather Robert Ludlum kind of way.)

Kremlinology of yesteryear is today concerned with the machinations of the Saudi court and the central question of who will succeed King Abdullah.

Simon Henderson is, so far as I know, the leading expert in this mysterious field. He first wrote on this topic many years ago with the monograph succeeding Fahd and has sporadically continued to this day. I’ve already commented on his latest piece which contains the sage and immutable cliché that those who know anything about Saudi succession don’t talk; those that do the talking don’t really know.

King Abdullah is an old man in his 80s, even if he is not particularly frail. Yet his recent absence from officiating over the Umrah in Mecca has sent Saudi court speculators into another bout of frenzied speculation. Here’s a (very) brief and not very informative recap.

What is of more interest (to me at least) is that King Abdullah recently named his son Prince Mitaeb as a member of the council of ministers and the head of the national guard. Previously, Abdullah himself had been its head since 1962. The guard itself is today believed to have nearly a quarter of a million (or 150,000, depending on what source you believe) well trained, well motivated, well equipped and competent soldiers. Their duty is strictly to protect the Royal family. The guard is also seen as a counterweight to the Saudi national army.

Most (if not all) Gulf States have several standing ‘armies’. They are typically led by different factions within the ruling family. Each draws on their army for support and as an obvious sign of prestige and protection.

Abdullah’s – or now Mitaeb’s – guard is a Bedouin-raised army, following in the tradition of previous Saudi Kings.

The Saudi National Army is not as highly regarded and is headed by Crown Prince Sultan and his son and Defence Minister Prince Khaled. Though Sultan is slated to assume the throne when Abdullah passes away, he is, so it seems, in far worse health than Abdullah and would be unlikely to take the throne.

It is expected that Prince Naif – no spring-chicken himself – would take over instead, having been promoted to third in line.

Yet it is the question of generational change that is the most interesting in the Kingdom. Clearly Mitaeb, Khalid and Naif’s son, Mohammed, will be among the contenders. As to how it will all pan-out, I’ll have to leave that to greater minds than mine; those that can read the proverbial tea-leaves or summon up great insight from seating-plans at Royal Saudi banquet.

Update: Simon Henderson on the week’s events.