The many mysteries behind the Saudi monarchy

Published June 2nd, 2013 - 05:23 GMT
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

In the past few days, new rumors circulated about the Saudi king having been pronounced clinically dead, but they were quickly denied by Riyadh which produced footage of Abdullah receiving guests as he headed to vacation in Morocco. These reports have come in the aftermath of a significant amendment to the function of the Saudi National Guard, headed by Mutaib, Abdullah’s son. The Guard was upgraded into a government ministry, and to many observers, the move is indicative of an imminent major development.

There are many signs suggesting a major development is afoot in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, the royal family, particularly King Abdullah’s wing, is trying to postpone disclosing this as much as possible, not to mention suppressing talk about its implications.

The king’s old age, largely believed to be over 90, and health condition mean that the rumors about his death are not all that surprising.The sudden changes introduced in the Saudi bureaucracy began surfacing more than a year ago. The moves often signal disputes among the various wings affiliated with senior members of the royal family. It appears that there are three main wings in Saudi at present: King Abdullah’s, that of Crown Prince Salman, and Nayef’s family wing. Meanwhile, the wings affiliated to the late King Fahd and the late Prince Sultan suffered a fatal blow that has effectively removed them from the line of succession to the throne.

Rumors about the state of Abdullah abound these days, in way that is reminiscent of what had happened at the end of 2011. Back then, there were also rumors that the king was in a state of clinical death, after doctors supposedly failed to restart his heart. Now, there is a similar climate in Saudi.

The king’s old age, largely believed to be over 90, and health condition mean that the rumors about his death are not all that surprising. Furthermore, six of Abdullah’s brothers have died in just two years, all of whom younger than him.

The most recent rumor about Abdullah’s death started on May 25, originating from sources claiming to be close to the royal palace. The rumor alleged that the king died on May 24, and that the decision not to announce his passing was made by Salman, the crown prince, who, the sources claimed, had his own reasons for delaying the news. The same sources attributed the reports about Abdullah’s death to a prince who is very close to the king, and another close to the palace.

Whatever the case may be, announcing the death or illness of senior Saudi royals has always proven to be controversial. Often, the official statement issued by the Royal Court about the king or senior princes travelling for treatment explained their trips by saying nothing more than that the royals were “undergoing medical examinations.” And when the time came for the royals to return home, the statements usually claimed they had completed their “convalescence.”

This usually unleashes speculations, until the Royal Court issues a statement confirming the death of the king or the prince in question.

One observer who closely follows the rivalry within the royal family said that the latest reports of the king’s death were chiefly motivated by the king’s decision to temporarily suspend his public activities because of his health issues.

But others familiar with royal affairs purport that the rumor was started by the king’s opponents, who fear that Abdullah may be taking steps to clear the way for his son Mutaib, the new Minister of the National Guard, to ascend to the throne.

Tradition made the interior minister the most likely candidate for the post of second deputy prime minister, and after that the post of crown prince.The talk about efforts to hand over power to the third generation of princes had quickly subsided following the appointment of Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz as Second Deputy Prime Minister. This made it seem like power was being shared among the three main wings, especially the sons of Abdullah, Salman, and Nayef.

However, excluding the sons of Fahd and Sultan from the succession and turning the National Guard into a ministry entail dramatic transformations in the ruling configuration in Saudi, as the National Guard Ministry is now on par with the ministries of defense and the interior. This gives the king’s son, Mutaib bin Abdullah, a solid chance to take the throne through his new ministry.

In the past, tradition made the interior minister the most likely candidate for the post of second deputy prime minister, and after that the post of crown prince. But after upgrading the status of the National Guard, King Abdullah’s wing in the royal family is well-positioned to be a strong contender for the throne.

Turning the National Guard into a ministry headed by the son of the king may be the most daring of the decisions made recently by Abdullah, and could be a strong portent of the dramatic development expected to be announced in the coming few days.

In all cases, the struggle among the three royal wings is likely to take a sharper turn in the coming phase, in light of the large-scale efforts to exclude from the succession the other major wings and a large number of hopeful heirs from the next generation of Sauds.

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