Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz's already frail health is rapidly deteriorating, sources in Saudi Arabia told ......on Nov 20. Crown Prince Sultan's reported decline comes a little more than three years after the death of his elder full brother, former Saudi monarch King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz. As those reportedly next in line to the throne are all older than 70, the royal family could soon see a new elite take over, one dominated by the grandsons of the founder of the modern Saudi state, King Abdul-Aziz bin Abdel-Rehman al-Saud.
Crown Prince Sultan heads the Sudeiris, the most powerful clan within the house of al-Saud; he is also the most influential member of the royal family. His death is therefore likely to result in significant changes in the power structure in the ruling al-Saud family. It will also be a test of the newly instituted succession council, which went into effect in October 2006 with the enactment of the so-called Allegiance Institution Law.
Before then, Saudi Arabia dealt with transitions in an ad hoc manner. The new law governing succession is quite detailed, specifying how a new king and crown prince are to be appointed based on consensus within the 35-member body. As these rules and regulations have never been implemented, the next succession will gauge the efficacy or lack thereof of the new system.
Crown Prince Sultan would have taken over after the death of the current monarch and the crown prince's older half-brother, King Abdullah. But as it appears that the crown prince is likely to pass away before the king, the succession calculus is in flux. The next-most senior member of the family is Interior Minister Prince Nayef. Prince Nayef has a reputation of being quite right-wing given his closeness to the Wahhabi religious establishment. He therefore is probably not a viable candidate for crown prince, especially not at a time when the current Saudi monarch is spearheading a major reform initiative.
Crown Prince Sultan has long held the post of Saudi defense minister. Though his son, retired Gen. Khalid bin Sultan, is one of his deputies, we are told Khalid is not likely to succeed his father as defense minister. Crown Prince Sultan's second son, Prince Bandar, is an extremely influential member of the royal family. Prince Bandar served as Riyadh's envoy to Washington for 22 years until 2005, and is now Saudi Arabia's national security chief.
Crown Prince Sultan and his faction clearly enjoy a disproportionate amount of power within the Saudi hierarchy.
His pivotal position and the influence he enjoys have given him a major say in the distribution of the kingdom's petrodollar wealth, both within the kingdom and abroad. Crown Prince Sultan's death at a time when the West is looking to Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of oil, to become the largest donor in international efforts to counter the global financial crisis could therefore have serious implications.
From Riyadh's point of view, the kingdom -- which largely has remained immune to the global financial contagion -- faces two main challenges.
First, on the domestic front, Riyadh must ensure that successes in countering terrorism and in Saudi Arabia's ongoing program to deal with extremism are not reversed. The second challenge is more important. This one is posed by the rise of Iran, Saudi Arabia's main regional rival, in the wake of U.S. efforts to draw down its forces in Iraq.
These challenges mean Saudi power transitions must be dealt with as smoothly as possible, and must not lead to power struggles. While the house of al-Saud has proven resilient over the course of the last 264 years, the growth in the number of stakeholders within the kingdom is cause for major concern. During this transition, power increasingly will fall to a third generation of the royal family. Just how smoothly the transition will go remains to be seen.