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The struggle for power in the Desert Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Will the rest of us pay for it?
By Aladdin Elaasar — (New York City, NY) Saudi Crown Prince Sultan’s has been rushed abruptly for urgent medical care last week. It was an alarming signal for a possible power struggle in the world’s biggest oil exporter, and a sign of a serious problem that may disturb the succession line in the absolute monarchy and create the possibility for internal instability, analysts and diplomats say.
Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz is no ordinary royalty. He is has been the minister of Defense and Aviation and the Inspector General and Deputy Prime Minister for more than a quarter of a century. He is one of the wealthiest and powerful princes in Saudi Arabia. He is the Crown Prince and second in succession.
Sultan, in his early 80s, had an intestinal cyst removed in Saudi Arabia in 2005 and diplomats say he is in weaker health than King Abdullah, who is thought to be in his mid-80s. Sultan is also father to Prince Bandar Bin Sultan the former long time ambassador to Washington, a controversial figure who has been accused of taking multi billion dollar bribes facilitating military contracts. Bandar is the current Saudi National Security Advisor and brother in law of Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Saud al-Faisal, and prince Turki al-Faisal the former long serving chief of Saudi Intelligence agency.
Sultan has had several ailments, including an intestinal cancer that required surgery and extended hospitalization in 2004. The uncertainty of Sultan’s health and possible incapacitation would re-shift the political sands in the desert kingdom.
According to Saudi opposition groups, Sultan’s reputation as corrupt earned him the title of “the Sultan of Thieves.” In addition to billions of dollars of kickbacks he allegedly earned in the multi-billion arms deals from the U K and the US, Sultan has been accused of expropriating huge plots of land across the country from common citizens. The concerns about Sultan’s health highlighted potential instability in the country, a key U.S. ally and strict Islamic state, over who among the Saudi royal family will take the reins of power after the era of King Abdullah and his heir Sultan, according to Ali Al-Ahmed a think tank analyst at the Institute for the Gulf in Washington, D.C.
There is no designated second-in-line to the throne, and since coming to power in 2005 King Abdullah has set up an “allegiance council” of sons and grandsons of the kingdom’s founder to regulate the affairs of the succession. Saudi Arabia has no political parties or elected parliament and governance is the prerogative of the al-Saud family, legitimized by clerics who administer Islamic sharia law. Still, there is more obscurity than ever over who could succeed Sultan and Abdullah.
“The council opens the floor for everyone. It is by secret ballot, and of course that way anything could happen,” said Saudi political scientist Khaled al-Dakhil.
Up to now, the best-positioned sons of the kingdom’s founder Abdul-Aziz bin Saud have appeared to be Interior Minister Prince Nayef and Riyadh governor Prince Salman, both of whom are full-brothers of Crown Prince Sultan and former King Fahd.
Dakhil said the allegiance council could open the path for other sons of Abdul-Aziz such as Prince Mishaal, the council’s chairman, or intelligence service chief Prince Muqrin, who are both seen as close to King Abdullah.
Grandsons could also garner support. Sons of Salman, Sultan, Abdullah, Prince Talal, former kings Fahd and Faisal are all prominent figures in politics, economy or the media.
Sultan’s demise will diminish the power and influence of the Sudairys, allowing King Abdullah and his allies to pass the throne to another branch,” the Gulf Institute in Washington, a Saudi dissident group.
The powerful clerical establishment and some of the Sudairy brothers have stood in the way of the reformers, who they consider too liberal, diplomat say. Much of the clerics’ efforts have focused on keeping women veiled, segregated and at home.
According to Saad Al-Fagih head of MIRA, a Saudi opposition group, Sultan’s death will make the picking of the next crown prince an issue of contention among the rival clans of Al-Saud. This could split the family even further, as a non-Sudayri crown prince would mark the decline of their powerful reign.
Saudi society is strife with dissent and turmoil; it seems divided over whether to allow women full participation, or not. It is divided between the ultra zealous orthodox believers of Wahabism and westernized liberals. It is divided between the large young population and the ailing Old Guard, royalties and commoners, alike. It is divided between the super rich elite and the seemingly struggling class complaining of the rise in the prices of commodities in spite of the economic boom that Saudi Arabia is witnessing again. Besides, al-Qaida sympathizers and sleeping cells have not been uprooted yet from Saudi Arabia.
Adding to that, the situation in Iraq and the escalating threats from Iran in the region and the heavy involvement of Saudi Arabia in regional politics and promulgating its militant brand of Islam worldwide: Any sign of turmoil and disturbance of oil production in the Happy Kingdom could send shock waves and panic through an already hyped stock market affecting consumers of energy and other products everywhere.
(Aladdin Elaasar is an award winning Arab American journalist and author of several books including “Silent Victims: The plight of Arabs and Muslims in Post 9/11 America.” Elaasar is also a member of the National Arab American Journalists Association.)
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Ray Hanania is an award winning political columnist and author. He covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).
Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and for TheArabDailyNews.com, and TheDailyHookah.com.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.
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Email him at: RGHanania@gmail.com
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