THERE is little doubt about the economic health of Saudi Arabia. It has a fifth of the world’s oil reserves and earns another tidy sum from the millions of Muslim visitors to its holy places. But the health of its leadership is another matter. Not only is King Abdullah now ailing. So are many of the other senior princes who run the show. Though the hold of the Al Saud family over their 18m subjects is still undisputed, it is not fully clear which of its members will be leading the country next—or what direction they will take.
King Abdullah, who is thought to be 87 years old and has occupied the throne since 2005, is in an American hospital being treated for a herniated disc. His operation is said to have gone well. Still, he took the precaution of formally charging his half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, with responsibility for the kingdom in his absence. Yet Sultan, who has served as defence minister since 1962, is also unwell. Thought to be at least 82, he has spent the past several years trying to recover from a serious illness, believed to be cancer.
Other ailing Saudi royals include the longstanding foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has Parkinson’s disease, and the Crown Prince’s son, Bandar, who served for two decades as ambassador in Washington and later as a national-security chief. Last month he returned to the kingdom after two years’ absence for an unexplained convalescence. Two of the most powerful princes, Nayef, who has run the interior ministry since 1975, and Salman, who has governed the capital, Riyadh, since 1962, have also recently been ill. Both are full brothers of Crown Prince Sultan, and have been widely tipped as second and third in line to the throne.
The opacity of Saudi Arabia’s political system inevitably elicits much parsing of official reception lists and reading of coffee cups for clues. The line of succession still passes between the multiple sons of the founding monarch, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, before moving down a generation. Powerful princes control rival administrative fiefs. Rarely, however, do commentators have solid information. The latest wobbly round of musical thrones is stirring unusually heated speculation.
Some attach special significance to last-minute personnel changes made by the king before he left. Among other moves, he extended for four years the tenure both of his ambassador in Washington, Adel Jubeir, a staunch loyalist, and of the kingdom’s top religious official, who has generally backed Abdullah’s efforts to rein in extremist clerics. The king has also relinquished his own post as commander of the National Guard, a 100,000-man paramilitary force that links the Saud family with the Bedouin tribes whose loyalty underpins its rule and which has been seen as counterbalancing the army and police. In his place the king appointed his son, Prince Mitab, elevating him to the cabinet.
These moves may suggest an effort by the king to ensure a future role for what is seen as his reform-minded faction against the ruling family’s more conservative elements represented by Princes Sultan, Nayef and Salman. But the elevation of Mitab also indicates a new and more dramatic trend: the replacement of an older generation of princes, all sons of the kingdom’s founder, who died in 1953, with his grandsons. There are whispers that similar changes are in the offing in the ministries of defence and interior, where sons of Princes Sultan and Nayef are deputy ministers. Speculation is spreading that the foreign ministry will stay in the hands of a close relative of the incumbent, Prince Saud, so perpetuating a division of spoils between leading branches of the family.
Judging from the kingdom’s past, such changes may come about amicably, through consensus among senior princes. But the official family council (sometimes called “the allegiance commission”), set up by the king a few years ago, has yet to be tested. Embracing all surviving sons of King Abdul Aziz and descendants of those who have already died, it is meant to vet future crown princes and settle family disputes. The fact that King Abdullah’s illness was publicly announced may be cited as a sign of new-found candour that bodes well for the future. Still, the inner workings of the House of Saud remain as murky as the oil that gushes from Saudi soil.