Division for Research in Strategy
Institute for Advanced
and Political Studies
IASPS Research Papers in Strategy
Succession in Saudi Arabia:
The not so Silent Struggle
By Paul Michael Wihbey
What happens in Saudi Arabia deeply affects the
smaller oil states of the Persian Gulf.
It also affects Iran, Iraq, the world oil markets, the Arab-Israeli
conflict, the prosperity of Europe and Japan, and of course U.S. foreign
policy. Over the past five years a not
so silent struggle has been taking place within the Saudi royal family. While the immediate stakes are the fortunes
of princes known beyond the kingdom’s borders only by specialists, in fact the
future of Saudi Arabia itself and all the interests it touches have been at
stake. A closer look at the struggle’s
outcome tells us what we can expect from the winners and losers. More important, the succession struggle is
worth examining because it laid bare the Saudi regime itself, with all its strengths,
problems and proclivities. Looking at
it we learn how much and how little can be expected from Saudi Arabia.
Throughout its history, the Saudi royal
family has sought stability and continuity above all else. Even during the most tumultuous periods of
transition and rivalry, the family has
understood that its hold on power is entirely dependent on unity and cohesion.
On March 1, 1992, King Fahd issued an edict
clarifying the succession to the throne. Prior to this, the crown had passed to one
of the thirty-five surviving sons of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, first king and
founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia, according to seniority and family
consensus. This had resulted in a
smooth transfer of power over a period of six decades and four ascensions to
the throne. The 1992 decrees dramatically broadened the options for succession, set off a
struggle, as well as intense speculation and prognostication by scholars,
journalists, diplomats and other interested observers of Middle East affairs.
The reasons for the tumult have as much to do
with a radically changing domestic environment as it does with the
extraordinary and intense competition between the incumbents to the throne,
Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and the Minister of Defense, Prince Sultan
Bin Abdul Aziz. By 1997 Abdullah had
clearly won. But it remains to be seen
whether he or anyone else could maintain the regime in the face of hardening
divisions within the family as well as changing domestic and international circumstances.
The Vital Interest:
Sitting atop one-quarter of the world’s
proven oil reserves, exporting 8 million b/d, supplying 1/6 of U.S. oil imports
and the seventh leading purchaser of U.S. goods and services.
Saudi Arabia’s unique geo-strategic status has made it a pillar of U.S.
strategic considerations since World War II. By 2000, the U.S. consumption of imported
oil will rise from 45% (1999) to 56%.
The stability of western economies is inextricably tied to the
uninterrupted supply of oil. The three
previous ‘shocks’ in the flow of supply (1973 Arab Boycott, 1978-79 Iranian
Revolution, 1990-91 Iraq-Iran War) resulted in sharp price increases which
impacted the West with higher consumer prices, increased unemployment and an
overall decline in productivity. Not
surprisingly, whether under the rubric of a ‘special relationship’ or of
collective security’ 
, the United States has been the guarantor of the pro-American Saudi regime. 
This strategic partnership has been able to
manage and contain external threats to the regime in a manner conducive to the
mutual interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.8 However, in the aftermath of the Gulf war,
increasingly militant Saudi constituencies inside and outside of the country
have increasingly scrutinized, questioned and criticized the regime. The Saudis must now deal with a host of
challenges that will test the regime as never before.
the Regime Saudi Arabia is a
coalition of tribes ruled by the Saudi dynasty through an absolute monarchy
legitimized by the pronouncements of the orthodox Wahhabi sect. To sustain the regime the king must retain
the loyalty of the three most important pillars of the regime: the several
thousand princes who constitute the House of Saud, the tribes, and the armed
forces. The king does this primarily by
dispensing the wealth generated from oil.
Thus, Saudi kings have tamed chronic factionalism within the royal
family, and governed by consensus, especially concerning important questions of
state, such as succession.
For over six decades, the resulting political cohesion of
the regime and sense of national unity has bred an antipathy to any manner of
political liberalization, but as was the case with Iran, under the Shah a host
of social and economic forces outside the control of the regime have already
begun to alter the nature of Saudi society.
Hence, the King of Saudi Arabia bears an
inordinate amount of responsibility in his quest for societal equilibrium,
economic development and regional stability.
The recent struggle for succession offers an interesting insight into
the matrix of forces that is helping define Saudi leadership, policy and
Pressures. Internal threats may be more significant
than the external. The message of
radical Islam has resonance, even in a conservative society like Saudi
Arabia. The Islamist opposition finds
fertile ground in the crisis of the welfare state, widespread corruption and
varied issues of modernization. Divided
into two broad constituencies, Islamist and secular/nationalist, the opposition
movements share many of the same grievances: denial of basic political rights,
the alliance with America, corruption and fiscal mismanagement. The Islamists seem more strident and
militant as they agitate for departure of American troops from Saudi soil,
increased clerical participation in government and greater support for Islamic
causes. The secular/nationalists
composed primarily of members from the middle, professional and intellectual
classes, stress the need for basic human rights, greater economic
opportunities, political mobility and an end to the repressive nature of the
Saudi regime. Within this rapidly
emerging discontent, anger and militancy, can the Saudis effectively provide a
semblance of political accountability, transcend the tribal underpinnings of
the regime, and secure a more mature relationship between the governed and the
House of Saud?
the Economy. Public expenditures have soared, even as
massive military purchases continue and revenues decline. Defense spending accounts for 30% of the
official budget, while another 30% is defense related. Heavy
subsidies--in effect payments for political support--account for most
of the rest. Public expenditures were
reduced by 19% in 1994. Can Saudi
Arabia safely reduce further the high level of public spending? Can the transition to privatization and
market economy without the emergence of a new social contract provide Saudi
citizens with a greater level of political participation even as their benefits
from the welfare state are gradually diminished? Can diversification provide a job market for an increasingly
young, educated and unemployed Saudi population?
Threats. The most immediate dangers stem from Iraq
and Iran. Despite the U.S. policy of
‘dual containment’, both regimes seem to be secure and have so adapted
themselves that either can disrupt the status quo. Given increasing domestic resistance to the American connection,
the failure to create a collective security system via the G.C.C., or a
standing ground force with Egyptian and Syrian participation, can the Saudis
find a new formula for a regional balance of power equation that does not rely
exclusively on the deterrence of American military troops on Saudi soil? Is there any set of interregional relations
that can replace the current confrontational posture that the Saudis have been
locked into since the Gulf war?
The domestic serenity and tranquillity of the
last few decades has suddenly imploded, much to the consternation of U.S.
policy-makers and their Saudi counterparts.9
Starting with the 1991 petition for government reforms that was submitted to
King Fahd by Islamic intellectuals,10
Saudi domestic political affairs have been characterized by:
Islamist Opposition. In 1994, thousands of protesters, led by
radical Islamic clerics, demonstrated against the pro-western policies of the
Saudi government. The rally which took
place in the city of Buraida, 200 miles northwest of Riyadh, resulted in the
imprisonment of the clerics and subsequent arrest of hundreds of suspected
supporters throughout the country.11 The growth of an indigenous dissident
Islamist movement has resulted in a continuing government campaign of
detention, repression and denial;
Secular/Nationalist Critics. Operating from the U.K. and the U.S., media
conscious Saudi opposition groups have denounced the behavior of senior Saudi
officials and questioned the legitimacy of the Saudi regime. The two most active and influential groups
are the London-based Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR)
headed by a former physics professor, Mohammed Masari, and the Committee
Against Corruption in Saudi Arabia (CASCA), based in Mclean, Virginia;12
Against Americans.13 The unprecedented terrorist bombings of U.S.
facilities in Saudi Arabia were each followed by scores of arrests, pushing
much of the opposition underground;
Resentment. In the aftermath of the terrorist bombings,
Saudi security forces arrested numerous members of suspected Shiite subversive
groups, the most notable being Sheikh Jafar al-Mubarak, suspected of being a
leader of the pro-Iranian ‘Saudi Hezbollah’.14 The arrests have only served to exacerbate
tensions between the government and the one million Saudi Shiites living in the
oil-rich Eastern province, who claim discrimination in religious, civil and
Combining a burgeoning 3.5% annual population
growth, an estimated 20-25% unemployment rate, a decline in real per capita
income from $14,000 in 1982 to $4000 in 1994, a decrease in oil revenue from
$116 billion in 1981 to $33 billion in 1995 and the very real prospects of flat
or sliding oil prices, the threat of increased domestic terrorism and civil
unrest to the stability of the regime should not be underestimated.
The American security guarantee does nothing
to mitigate growing domestic stress and the buildup of economic pressures.
With the specter of the fall of the Shah of Iran
and subsequent regional consequences looming over the House of Saud and its
Western allies, the ascension of the next Saudi King and the decisions he makes
will have a direct impact not only on his domain, but certainly on the region
and much of the industrialized world.
Will the new King cooperate with the U.S. on the crucial issue of oil
production and pricing? Will the
35-40,000 American civilians and troops on Saudi territory be permitted to
stay? Will the quality and the depth of
the U.S.-Saudi military and commercial relationship be reduced and
enhanced? Will Saudi Arabia hinder or
encourage efforts at peace between Israel and the Palestinians?
When King Fahd issued the March 1992 edict on
succession, he may have inadvertently initiated the most contentious and
dangerous struggle for power since the founding of the state. Until its resolution sometime in the fall of
1996, Saudi Arabia endured three years of an internecine conflict that bordered
on assassination, palace coup and civil war.
The protagonists in the drama were Abdullah, the Heir Apparent,15 first deputy prime minister,
commander-in-chief of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), and Prince
Sultan,16 second deputy prime
minister and after Fahd, the eldest of the ‘Sudairi Seven’ brothers.17
Named after their mother, Hussah Bint Al-Sudairi, the favorite
wife of Ibn Saud, the seven full brothers--Fahd, Sultan, Turki (Ex-Vice
Minister of Defense), Salman (Governor of Riyadh province), Ahmad
(Vice-Minister of Interior), Nayef (Minister of Interior) and Abdul Rahman
(Vice Minister of Defense)--represent what is arguably the most powerful single
faction within the Royal Family, the Al-Sudairi.
Unlike the Sudairi Seven who are generally
regarded as ‘progressives’, unflinchingly pro-American and driven by the
accumulation of wealth, Abdullah is a
traditionalist, a nationalist and is respected for both piety and integrity.18
In general, it may be said that the ‘progressives’, led by Fahd and
Sultan, are committed to the American alliance, rapid modernization and
economic development, and high rates of oil production to moderate
pricing. ‘Traditionalists’, led by
Abdullah, believe in a less overt relationship with the U.S., resistance to
westernization, greater economic diversification and less statism.
Abdullah’s status as heir apparent was never
seriously in question until Fahd issued the royal edict, which effectively
opened the succession process on two new fronts. According to the edict, the King has the power to appoint or
dismiss his heir apparent, based on suitability rather than seniority. The edict also makes the grandsons of
Abdul-Aziz eligible for the throne. The
leading figures among these ‘Second Generation’ princes include: Prince Bandar,
his brother Khalid, Mohammed (son of Fahd and governor of the Eastern
Province), Prince Saud (son of King Faisal and foreign minister), his brother
Turki (chief of Foreign Intelligence), Lt. Gen. Sultan (son of Prince Salman),
and Mitab (son of Abdullah). The effect
on Abdullah was jolting; not only would some 10-20 princes now be eligible for
consideration, but the discreet, collegial forum of consensus formulation now
lay open to blatant political machinations.
Not surprisingly, his rivals, primarily Sultan and Salman,19 seized upon the opportunity to place
another Sudairi on throne, and to
create a new dynasty based upon maternal lineage.
The next three and one/half years were marked
by an uncharacteristic array of plots, conspiracies and shifting alliances
within the royal family. However,
during this period, Abdullah’s administrative acumen, especially in fiscal and
budgetary matters, so impressed itself upon an ailing King Fahd, that by the
time Fahd suffered a serious stroke in November of 1995, Abdullah had become
the de facto head of state. The Borgia-like
court intrigue then culminated in a serious and dramatic turn of events.
Disturbed and desperate, Sultan resorted to
direct confrontation amounting to a kind of coup d’etat:
was at a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Oman (December 1995) Sultan
summoned members of the Ulema
(The Supreme Religious Authority) to seek their sanction of his claim to the
throne and to dismiss Abdullah as Commander in Chief of the National Guard,
thereby preventing Abdullah’s return to the country.20
Recognizing Sultan’s gambit as a blatant attempt to seize power under
the guise of religious approbation and in order to avert civil war, the Ulema
denied Sultan’s petition.
aftermath of the failed coup, Sultan was rumored to be plotting against
Abdullah’s life. Abdullah then traveled
to Al-Qissim, center of the powerful Shammar confederation of
tribes. Amidst reports of an imminent
attack on his personal entourage, Abdullah challenged his fate by walking in
the open and participating in ceremonial tribal dances demonstrating traits of
courage and defiance that were not lost upon his rivals and allies.21
He got the tribes’ support.
Abdullah ordered the National Guard’s well trained, loyal and near-fanatical
Bedouins to engage in highly visible military maneuvers.22
If Abdullah was going to be deposed as heir apparent, it would have
taken a civil war to do it.
These events had an immediate and sobering
impact on King Fahd and the family elders.
The prospect of Abdullah’s national guard engaging the somewhat
less-resolute but better equipped regular Saudi armed forces was
intolerable. On January 1, 1996, Fahd
nipped the emerging crisis in the bud by announcing that because of ill health
he was temporarily transferring the powers of
state to Abdullah. It is quite
conceivable that under family pressure to resolve the conflict, Fahd took the
unusual decision as an ‘objective’ test to determine Abdullah’s fitness to
rule.23 By passing judgment while still alive, Fahd would convey a clear
and irrevocable decision as to which of the two contenders would succeed him on
In the event, Abdullah’ s fifty-two day (Jan.
1-Feb. 21) regency was characterized by careful deliberation and continuity of
policy. His handling of the budget,
amicable discussions with U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, and
continued support and encouragement of the Majlis al-Shura did not go
unnoticed. In response to signals of
friendship and cooperation with America, the State Department declared that,
“in terms of the kingdom and its governance, we think it’s in good and stable
The Next Administration:
Although Abdullah’s status as future King had
been secured, the ensuing months saw a round-robin series of discussions,
negotiations and alliances that were required to complete the succession
process by giving form to the forthcoming Abdullah government. Among the more interesting changes expected
transfer of the Prime Ministership from Fahd to Abdullah. Fahd thus effectively removed himself from
power without the need to abdicate, and provided Abdullah with the reins of
government. Meanwhile, he satisfied the
Sudairis’ demand for real executive power by making Sultan first deputy prime minister
in addition to Sultan’s new status as Crown Prince;
second son, Mitab, as the true, effective leader of the national guard. This will probably be Abdullah’s most
significant appointment with implications and consequences at several different
levels. Trained at Sandhurst, Lt. Gen., Mitab is regarded as a
knowledgeable and highly competent commanding officer with strong professional
ties to the U.S. military. There is
little doubt that Mitab will aggressively pursue modernization programs aimed
at improving and expanding the Guard’s capabilities in counter-insurgency,
intelligence gathering and tactical field operations. Although the national guard is configured to deal with threats to
internal security, it is highly likely that under Mitab’s guidance the SANG
will more closely resemble a conventional hi-tech ground force replete with
MBTs, heavy artillery and heliborne units.
Such a development would provide Abdullah with a powerful counter-weight
to the combined forces of the Sudairi-controlled ministries of interior and
defense. The SANG expansion would not
only strengthen checks and balances within the royal family, but it could well
become the impregnable bastion for a subtle but potent assault on the political
ambitions of the Sudairis. Under his
father’s tutelage, the politically astute Mitab has cultivated a network of
powerful regional political and military leaders that have included King
Hussein of Jordan and the late Turkish prime minister, Torgut Ozal. A low political profile, conservative
personal behavior and commitment to his father’s doctrine has placed Mitab in
position to emerge as the leader of the “second generation” princes should he
choose to do so. As the older generation
dies off and if the Sudairis continue to alienate important constituencies,
Mitab could position himself to exploit the new rules of succession to his
advantage. With a strong military and
tribal power base, the support of key factions of the royal family, acquiescence of Islamists and a royal legacy
from his father, Mitab may silently and without fanfare emerge as the new Saudi
authority and status for foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal, and chief of
intelligence Turki-Al-Faisal. Both
brothers are highly regarded and have been loyal allies to the Crown
Prince. In return, Saud will coordinate
the relationship with the United States and Europe, while Turki’s
responsibilities may include developing Saudi policy to the new Islamic states
of Central Asia, as well as enhanced intelligence and security powers;
loyalists as new ambassadors to Washington and London. The new king will not hesitate to appoint
his own men to the two most important and sensitive Saudi diplomatic
posts. The fact that Prince Bandar,
long since an institution in Washington, D.C., has already signaled his desire
to move on to new horizons and his somewhat cool relationship with the Clinton
Administration will greatly facilitate change;
recognition, both politically and financially, to the majority of the 4-5000
princes (HH) of the House of Saud who have chafed against the inner circle
power structure of the sons and grandsons (HRH) of Abdul-Aziz.25 Although often overlooked, the ‘lesser’
princes constitute the great majority of the Royal Family. Because of the Sudairis’ strong control over
financial and political patronage, many of the princes have felt alienated and
resentful. By well as securing greater consensus for decisions that may break
with certain family traditions and customs.
By co-opting the good will of the lesser princes, it is likely that
Abdullah will secure greater consensus for decisions that may break with
certain family traditions and customs.
Ministry of Defense will probably go to Sultan’s brother, Abdul Rahman, thereby
enabling Sultan to fulfill his new responsibilities as Crown Prince.
Policy Orientation and Objectives:
Abdullah’s tenure as king will certainly be a
transitional phase for a regime which will be entering the twenty-first century
without ever really having passed through the twentieth. Abdullah’s goal, of course, is to make sure
that the country is not destabilized, and that the status, power and prestige
of the House of Saud is secured.
Although Abdullah will have little influence on the Sudairis’ inner
sanctum of Defense, Interior and unrestricted government based-business
dealings, it seems likely that he will have full control over foreign policy
and the pace and manner of domestic political and economic reforms. Perhaps above all he will have his own army
and a firm political base in the tribes.
In order to assure the continuity and security of the regime, Abdullah’s
rule will probably be characterized by three major policy goals.
First, as a nationalist and pious Muslim, Abdullah
has the credibility with Islamist and tribal constituencies to redress their
grievances and secure their support for new mechanisms aimed at a fairer
distribution of power. The consensus
and support of such groups could provide the impetus for the expansion of the
institutions of civil society,26
thereby laying a foundation for democratization. Second, with his well-known support of the Arab cause and
rejection of Western influences, Abdullah, more than any other senior Saudi
official can enhance the Saudi-U.S. strategic relationship without aggravating
opposition groups inside the kingdom.
Third, to make the economy less dependent on oil, he will try to expand
the agricultural, petrochemical and light manufacturing sectors in an attempt
to diversify the economy and create a job market. Abdullah will also try to
encourage the private sector, to open competition, reduce public spending and
apply market principles.
Any effort to neutralize the growing
influence of dissidents, whether Islamist or secular/nationalist, will require
Abdullah to confront the need for genuine political reform and the onerous
problem of high-level corruption. More
than any other domestic issues, the lack of accountability over public funds
has fueled the growth of the Saudi dissident movement.
Political reform is the prerequisite to any
serious effort to impact the massive corruption practices that have been
effectively institutionalized during Fahd’s reign. No longer satisfied with the minimum $10,000 a month stipend,
handsome government salaries and a host of princely perks and privileges, many
senior Saudi princes have boosted their incomes by engaging in business
activities that are at best, unethical and at worst, simple extortion or plunder. Some of the most egregious behavior include
the seizure of royal lands and recycling them for sale on the private market,
the establishment of shell companies to bypass U.S. anti-corruption laws, and
the imposition of princes as ‘brokers’ for private Saudi companies seeking to
do business with foreign corporations.
The exorbitant profits, commissions and kick-backs resulting from such
behavior, as well as lavish lifestyles subsidized by the state, has only served
to give credence to charges that as much as one-third of government revenue
never reaches the Saudi treasury.27
As King, it is likely that Abdullah would
favor investing the 61-member Majlis al-Shura with authority for fiscal
accountability over public funds and greater freedom of expression and assembly
in its deliberations. Extending similar
responsibilities to the 13 regional councils, made up from the leaders of
influential tribes and local families, would provide Abdullah the most
effective platform to target the profligacy and corruption of many senior
princes. By adopting a coherent program
of reform, curtailing the Saudi obligation for massive arms purchases from the
U.S., and launching an anti-corruption drive through the application of Islamic
law, the Shari’a, Abdullah could succeed in neutralizing the dissidents or
possibly even securing their allegiance.
By introducing a style of governance reminiscent of the austere but
respected King Faisal and colored by the political incrementalism of Jordan’s
King Hussein, Abdullah would begin the regime’s long overdue shift away from
political stability solely based on dispensing oil revenues to a stability
based on political participation, dialogue, and broad national consensus.
However, until such time that Abdullah has
the capacity to empower the middle class, intellectuals, and Islamists, he will
be fiercely resisted by the Sudairi establishment and their vested interests.
Ultimately, only the accumulated political
clout and the administrative capacities of a reinvigorated Majlis augmented by
Abdullah’s base of support in the National Guard and amongst the tribes has any
serious prospect of peacefully altering the balance of power within the Royal
Family in favor of reform. Anything
less would simply result in the continuation of the political status quo
thereby inviting greater opposition, dissidence, and domestic unrest, or
alternately a violent intra-family confrontation with unforeseeable
consequences for the House of Saud and regional stability.
Policy: Strategy and Issues
Quite apart from his emotive attachment to
pan-Arab ideals, the direction and substance of Abdullah’s foreign policy is
driven by the need to enhance the security of the Saudi regime by providing a
viable alternative to Saudi dependency on the United States. Three distinctive sets of personal and
political convictions define Abdullah’s geo-strategic vision: 1) balance of
power, 2) military capability, and 3) linkage of religious values to foreign
[Balance of Power]
Recent initiatives undertaken by Abdullah
seem to confirm his predilection for a regional balance of power among Arab and
Islamic states. Implicit is the
rejection of American ‘comprehensive’
regional approaches to peace, security, and economic integration. Believing that the American policy of dual
containment against Iran and Iraq has failed and that the United States is
neither able nor willing to aggressively pursue the stalled peace process,
Abdullah held an unprecedented meeting with Iranian President Rafsanjani at the
March, 1997, Islamic summit in Pakistan.
While both leaders agreed to visit each other’s countries in the near
future, the real significance of the meeting was the Saudi signaling of their
recognition of an eroding U.S. security regime in the Middle East. The perceived devolution of the American
posture combined with a steady slide in oil prices has left the Saudis, and
Abdullah in particular, with little choice other than to devise a new regional
system of alliances centered upon a modus vivendi with arch-rival Iran.
The essential component to any successful
formulation of balance of power is, of course, a strong and effective
military. Clearly, the Crown Prince is
in the process of changing the National Guard from a relatively small paramilitary
force augmented by tribal levies, into an offensive-minded mobile fighting
force composed of powerful armored and mechanized units manned by loyal and
well-trained soldiers. The
transformation of the National Guard dedicated to the protection of the House
of Saud and its oil installations into a rapid reaction force rivaling, if not
surpassing, the regular Saudi army is a message to Abdullah’s opponents, both
domestic and internal.
Unlike previous dubious Saudi initiatives to
promote an Islamic political and diplomatic agenda through multilateral
organizations like the Muslim League and the Organization of Islamic
Conferences, both Abdullah and his longstanding ally, Foreign Minister Saud,
will probably undertake a more nuanced approach to promote Islamic values on
behalf of Saudi national security. New
opportunities for the extension of Saudi influence at the bilateral and
regional levels are presenting themselves in Central Asia, the Balkans, and the
Muslim communities of Southeast Asia.
Probably the most immediate foreign policy
issue facing Abdullah is Saudi Arabia’s status as an American client
state. Islamist dissidents have been
particularly effective in validating the suspicions of large numbers of local
constituencies, that the country is little more than a cash cow for the United
States. Not only does the United States
have a captive market for the purchase of billions of dollars of military and
commercial products, and manipulates global oil pricing via the Saudis’ swing
position in OPEC, but the deployment of U.S. troops in the Kingdom and the Gulf
contributes to the regional de-stabilization that in turn justifies their
Sensitive to such arguments and to the resulting
corrosive effect on the legitimacy of the Royal Family to govern, Abdullah will
most likely project a Saudi First sense of national security priorities
by speaking publicly in nationalist or Islamic terms, while assuring the
Americans of his intention to fully cooperate on issues of common
Such a balancing act between foreign
commitment and internal cohesion will probably be characterized by:
significant increases in the size, readiness and capability of SANG. (The purpose being to restore a sense of
national pride in a Saudi “fighting force” with the ability to initiate combat
action without having to wait for U.S. military intervention and support);29
deliberative and selective approach in accepting appeals from Washington to
engage in large multi-billion dollar purchases of American products;30
or possible increased resistance to further U.S. troop deployments and
formalized or structured manner for high-level U.S.-Saudi meetings, especially
on sensitive issues;32
any sort of U.S. or Israel sponsored “Middle East Development Bank”.
Dramatic changes in Saudi Arabia’s position
towards Israel are unlikely. Abdullah
has been consistent in calling for a just and comprehensive peace, with
Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. Nevertheless, there are indicators of a more
conciliatory and constructive orientation towards the Jewish state.
Key Abdullah allies and top advisors,
including Foreign Minister Saud and Sheik Abdullaziz Al-Tuweijri, deputy chief
commander of the National Guard, have hosted important American-Jewish
organizational delegations in Saudi Arabia.
On these occasions, the Saudis not only expressed support for the peace
process and extended condolences upon the death of Prime Minister Rabin, but
more significantly, rejected the notion that Israel is a colonial interloper in
the Middle East and seemed to recognize that
Israel is the national home for the Jews.33
Recently, Abdullah expressed his impatience with the stalled peace
“The Saudi crown prince called on the
sponsors of the peace process to remove the obstacles to a just and
comprehensive peace, so that the countries of the region can devote their time
to implementing development and welfare
plans for their populations.”34
Abdullah’s most serious weakness in foreign
policy may well stem from his seemingly outdated and romantic commitment to
pan-Arabism. As defined by
secular-nationalist Arab regimes, pan-Arabism has proven to be a bankrupt
political ideology unable to overcome the realities of tribalism and
sectarianism.35 Nevertheless, motivated by an underlying sense of honor to the
nobility of the Arab cause, Abdullah bestowed his personal friendship as well
as billions of Saudi dollars on Saddam Hussein during the eight-year war with
Iran. But when Saddam invaded Kuwait
and sent his troops across the border into Saudi Arabia, Abdullah felt
personally betrayed.36 It was not surprising, therefore, that it
was Abdullah’s national guard forces who were largely responsible for ousting
the Iraqis from Saudi Arabia in the battle of Khafji.37
Abdullah has taken the position that the suffering of the Iraqi people
stemmed from the actions of Saddam and that Baghdad should fully carry out the
resolutions of the UN Security Council.38 Still, this bitter experience has not weaned
Abdullah from pan-Arabism. Since he is
married to a Lebanese whose sister is wife to Rifaat Assad, brother of the
Syrian president, Abdullah has a personal link to the Syrian leadership. Although troubled by the Tehran-Damascus
entente, Abdullah’s benign attitude to ‘brotherly’ Syria may have been used
against him to facilitate the access of Iranian-backed Syrian operatives into
Saudi Arabia seeking to create havoc in the Saudi-U.S. relationship by
targeting U.S. assets. In March, a
Saudi militant was arrested in Canada for alleged involvement with the June
1996 Tehran truck bombing that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Canadian authorities have concluded that the
suspect is linked to Hezbollah and Syria.
Any substantiation to these reports would at the very least cause acute
embarrassment for Abdullah, while potentially causing serious harm with key
family rivals and the American administration.39
Regardless of King Hussein’s ties to Israel,
it was the active intervention of the Saudi Crown Prince that forged a renewal
of relations between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. When Fahd refused to meet Hussein
during the latter’s pilgrimage to Mecca in February 1996, because of Jordan’s
pro-Iraqi stance during the Gulf war, it was Abdullah in his capacity as regent
who greeted the Jordanian monarch. The
two discussed bilateral and regional issues, including the peace process and
Iraq. Both leaders sought to close the
five-year gap in redressing grievances and reviving already signed
protocols. As a consequence, King
Hussein extended an official invitation to Abdullah to visit Jordan in May
1996. In August, Hussein again visited
Saudi Arabia, only this time to be warmly received by Fahd in his palace at
Jeddah. A number of bilateral
agreements were agreed upon, including the resumption of Saudi officers
training in Jordan, Saudi financial support for various Jordanian projects and
enhancing security and economic cooperation.
Jordanian prime minister Kabariti spoke of “building bridges of mutual
trust.”40 Although the current Saudi ambassador to Amman is a Sudairi
family member, it is clear that it was Abdullah’s initiative with Hussein in
February that laid the groundwork for the successful resumption of normal
Abdullah’s orientation towards a regional
system of alliances to replace an eroding U.S. security regime in the Middle
East may be the most interesting and significant development undertaken when
the crown prince inherits the throne.
Finally, the effort to attain a high level of
political cohesion through the cultivation of consensus and solidarity within
the ruling echelons of the royal family may be problematic. The barely concealed antagonism between
Prince Sultan and the Sudairis towards Abdullah may be too great to overcome
with traditional appeals for unity. The
possibility of the division of the House of Saud into two opposing and hostile
camps with different doctrines of governance may be the most serious threat to
the Kingdom. The first year of Abdullah’s reign will, in all likelihood,
determine whether the new monarch will devote his energies to modernization
within and alliances abroad or whether the regime will come under assault from
Dynamic Saudi religious, social and economic
forces are beginning to interact in a manner that may bring unexpected and
adverse consequences to U.S. interests in the region. Traditional American working assumptions about Saudi Arabia’s
political stability, economic well-being and social cohesion need serious
reevaluation. The United States ‘lost’
Iran, and later Iraq, because short-sighted policy makers relied on the
absolutism of the Iranian and the Iraqi regimes to safeguard American
commercial and security interests. Unless the new Saudi leadership, with support from the United States, applies the lessons
emanating from the debacle of Iran and Iraq in terms of political and economic
reforms, Saudi Arabia may be pulled into the vortex of regional turmoil. The United States ignores Saudi domestic
issues at its own peril.
 Simon Henderson, After King Fahd (Washington:
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1994), pp. 21-23.
(1953-64), Faisal (1964-75), Khalid (1975-82), Fahd (1982- ).
Wurmser, Coping with Crumbling States:
A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the Levant
(Washington: Institute for Advanced
Strategic and Political Studies, Dec. 1996),
B. Prados, Saudi Arabia: Post War
Issues and U.S. Relations
(Washington: CRS Issue brief,
Feb. 28, 1996), pp. 7-8.
 Sandra Mackey, The Saudis (New York: SIGNET, 1990), pp. 318-324.
Viorst, “The Storm and the Citadel,” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 75, No. 1,
January/February 1996, pp. 102, Interview with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince
Saud Al Faisal.
Lacey, The Kingdom: Arabia and the
House of Saud (New York, Avon, 1981), pp. 263;
Simon Henderson, After King Fahd, pp. 40-41.
8Prados, Saudi Arabia: Post-War Issues and U.S. Relations, pp. 3.
9Joe Stork, “Will Arabia’s
Corrupt Fahd Family Go The Way Of The Shah Of Iran?”:, Newsday, June 30, 1996.
10Viorst, “The Storm and the Citadel,”
11Dougal Jehl, “Saudi Heartland Is
Seething with Rage at Rulers and the U.S.,”
New York Times, November 5, 1996.
12 A”Saudi Arabia Plagued By Dissent, Economic Instability,” Security
Affairs. (JINSA)Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 1,12.
13On November 13, 1995, a bomb exploded at the U.S. operated SANG
training facility in Riyadh. Seven
people, including five U.S. citizens were killed and 60 others were wounded. A truck-bomb exploded outside a U.S.
military housing complex in Tehran on June 25, 1996 killing 19 U.S.
airmen. Four Saudi Sunni dissidents
were beheaded by Saudi authorities for their alleged role in the Riyadh
14Douglas Jehl, “Saudis Crackdown
on Obscure Shiite Militant Group,” New
York Times, October 31, 1996.
15 Half-brother to Fahd, Abdullah (73), was appointed by King Faisal as
Commander of the newly created Saudi National Guard in 1964. Upon the ascension of Fahd to the throne in
1982, Abdullah as the next eldest son of Ibn Saud, became the Crown Prince.
16 Full Brother to Fahd, Sultan (72), was appointed by Faisal as Minister
of Defense and Aviation. His son,
Bandar is the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., while another son, Khalid, was
Commander of Saudi forces in Operation Desert Storm.
17 Simon Henderson, After King Fahd, pp. 7-8.
18 Alfred B. Prados, Saudi
Arabia: Transfer Of Government
Functions, Succession, And Implications (Washington: CRS Report
For Congress, Feb. 5, 1996), pp. 4.
for the Defense of Legitimate Rights Monitor, Number 86, September 2, 1996.
the most dynamic of the Sudairis, Salman (59), is currently Fahd’s most trusted
advisor. Along with Abdullah, and
Sultan, Salman ranks as the most powerful decision-maker in the Royal Family. Favored by the U.S. Administration as a
future King, Salman’s power goes well beyond his governorship. He effectively controls Saudi media and
cultural policies (his son Ahmad runs “Al Sharq Al-Awsat”) and exercises
considerable influence on oil, foreign and intelligence matters. Salman’s unpublicized July 1996 visit to the
United States may have been in preparation for additional responsibilities
relating to his eventual designation as a Deputy Prime Minister, ‘Premier’ or
eventually, Crown Prince. According to
CASCA, Salman has overriding responsibility for Saudi funding of a number of
regional Islamic resistance groups through the use of charitable front
organizations in countries like Afghanistan and Algeria.
20 CDLR Monitor, Number 42, December 11, 1995.
21Arab Diplomatic Source, Interview.
22Prados, Saudi Arabia:
Transfer of Government Functions, Successions, And Implications, pp. 5.
23Compass News Service, “Fahd Hand-over to Abdullah Signpost To Succession,”
24Compass News Service, “Saudi Power Transfer Was Result of Pressure,
Internal Dissent”, Jan. 3, 1996.
25Arab Diplomatic Source,
26Knonid Lyubarsky, “Pressured
Reform,” Vol. 330, Economist, Jan. 15, 1994, pp.45
27 David B. Ottaway, ASaudi Court Case Raises Question of Wide Corruption
by Leadership,” Washington Post, January 2, 1996.
28Mahmoud Al Khatib, “America
creates tension in Arab Gulf region,”
Palestine Times, Nov. 1996, Interview with Dr. Abdullah al Nefeesi.
29The National Guard is made up of
two mechanized brigades, two mechanized special forces groups, 16 regular
infantry battalions and 24 irregular battalions (15,000 tribal levies). Total force strength is 57,000. Equipment includes 240 Commando APCs, 1,117
LAV 8x8 wheeled vehicles and 12 Super Puma helicopters. Since 1973, SANG modernization has been
conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Ex-U.S. special forces have been prominent in the Guard’s
training. Current plans call for an
increase in personnel to 80,000+, addition of M1A1 MBTs and 3-4 heavy
mechanized and armored brigades by the end of the century. Projected cost is estimated at $7
billion. Abdullah’s and Mitab’s control
over the Guard was further enhanced when a number of top ranking SANG officers
loyal to Badr and Sultan were asked to retire by Royal Decree in 1992.
30In 1993, Saudi Arabia was ranked
9th ($14.5 billion) after China ($15 billion) of countries with the largest
military budgets. Current level of
Saudi arms purchased from the U.S. is DoD -estimated at $23 billion. On January 30, 1997, U.S. officials
announced Saudi Arabia’s intention to purchase up to 100 F-16s with a potential
cost of $10-15 billion.
31Prados, Saudi Arabia: Post-War Issues and U.S. Relations, pp. 3.
Adams, “Americans Face return of Iran as Saudi Wobbles,” London Sunday Times,
July 28, 1996.
33A.D.L. ‘Frontline’ newsletter,
December 1995, pp. 3.
34 Saudi News Agency,
November 26, 1996.
35Wurmser, Coping with
Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the
Levant, pp. 2-6.
36 Arab Diplomatic Source, Interview.
37Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The
Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.,
1993), pp. 208-212; Frank Chadwick, Gulf War Factbook (Bloomington IL:
GDW Inc., 1991), pp. 81.
38Qatar News Agency, December 8, 1996.
39 Thomas L. Friedman, “Now That’s Interesting,” New York Times, November
40Al-Hayat, August 12,
1996, cited in Mideast Mirror,
August 12, 1996, pp. 8.