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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.

KAUST: criticisms and its future 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Ibrahim Al Rubaish, a member of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has released a tape decrying Saudi King Abdullah’s decision to allow mixed sex education at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near Jeddah. The recording treads a familiar and predictable path accusing Abdullah of violating Sharia law and failing in his duty to protect Islam.

Al Rubaish himself is quite interesting. Interred at Guantanamo until his release into Saudi’s custody back in 2006, he entered their much vaunted rehabilitation programme until he left and promptly fled to Yemen and joined up with what passes for Al Qaeda there.

He is neither the first nor will he be the last to criticize King Abdullah’s $7bn pet project. More or less as soon as it was opened it was heavily criticised from within Saudi Arabia for – amongst other things – barring Saudi’s religious police from entering its perimeters. Therefore, in the compound, women can drive, do not need to cover their hair and will mix generally with the men, all of which is prohibited outside KAUST.

As I have discussed before, KAUST’s future is, as far as I see it, uncertain. Despite having world-class technology such as one of the world’s fastest super-computers, getting staff to move to Saudi Arabia to use it may well be a problem. Agreements with, for example, Oxford University and Stanford University, will get scientists and researchers there for relatively short-term stints, but this is hardly building a base of qualified staff for the long-term. Indeed, despite the no doubt high salaries, overall, I still expect that they will struggle.

Of greater concern to KAUST is, or at least should be, the thorny issue of Saudi’s succession. The current Crown Prince is, it seems, all but dead. I do not mean this in an unkind way, but simply that his death has been expected for some time now and reported on some occasions. Therefore, Prince Naif, the 34 year veteran of the Ministry of the Interior was made Second Deputy Prime Minister in March 2009. It appears that this position was made to simplify the route of succession, given Crown Prince Sultan’s severely ill-health.

Prince Naif is, however, generally believed to be something of an arch-conservative which, when said in a Saudi Arabian context, ought to give one pause for thought. His tenure at the head of the Ministry of the Interior has seen him, for example, crackdown repeatedly on Saudi’s Shia minority whom, I believe, greatly fear him coming to power. I have not come across an account of his personal views on the KAUST project but if (as seems reasonable) they can be extrapolated from his other long documented conservative tendencies, then it is safe to say he would disapprove.

However, this is not to say that he would automatically clamp down on KAUST were he to ascend to the throne. There is a powerful argument running through ‘Saudi studies’ which dictates that Saudi’s leader’s policies are shaped more by Saudi’s situation than by their own personal proclivities. King Abdullah’s reforms are, therefore, as much if not more due to the mandates of, for example, the international situation post 9/11 and Saudi’s ever more pressing need to seriously address their lack of top-class educational institutions as it was because of his own ‘liberal’ tendencies.

The truth, as ever, no doubt falls somewhere in the middle. So far, it does seem unlikely – though far, far from impossible – that the unquestionably negative and conservative signal that clamping down on KAUST would send for would-be academics as well as for those on a governmental level might stay Naif’s hand. This is, of course, pure speculation but that is almost beside the point. The very fact that this concern is a factor worth discussing is, in and of itself, a perfect example of the uncertainty that will, in addition to structural and other issues, continue to make KAUST’s job of recruiting, teaching and excelling all the harder.