Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Desert Schism: Prince Nayef Bids for Saudi Throne

[The future of the Sunni tandem?]

'...If Nayef eventually becomes king, Saudi Arabia's hesitant steps toward reform will likely stop, and Washington's relations with Riyadh -- crucial for energy, financial, and regional policy -- would most likely be rockier than those with the current King Abdullah.......Prince Nayef, who controls the kingdom's huge internal security apparatus, is notorious for speaking his mind. He most famously suggested that Israel's intelligence service, Mossad, was behind the September 11 attacks on the United States in which fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis. He later proposed that Americans visiting the kingdom should be fingerprinted like visitors to the United States. .....
Prince Talal's March 28 statement, faxed to the Reuters news agency, put the issue succinctly: "I call on the royal court to clarify what is meant by this nomination and that it does not mean that he (Prince Nayef) will become crown prince." So far there has been no clarification and none is expected, but the move suggests intrigue and possible drama. Talal, the father of billionaire businessman Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, although considered eccentric, is viewed as a close ally of King Abdullah, who most likely approved of the statement. The speculation is that Abdullah was pressured by the Sudairi princes to make the appointment but now wants to diminish its significance.

Challenges for Washington

Many U.S. officials have been unhappy at the prospect of Sultan becoming king because they believe his reputation for personal financial gain from weapons contracts would jeopardize the rule of the House of Saud. Nayef, whose son Muhammad now runs Saudi counterterrorism efforts and wins plaudits from Western officials for his efforts, presents a different challenge...

Given its claim to leadership of the Islamic and Arab world, and its balancing role in the world oil market, good relations with Riyadh have been deemed a vital U.S. interest by successive administrations. This week, King Abdullah is expected to demonstrate the kingdom's crucial role in global affairs; first, at the Arab summit in Doha, where he is likely to block Iranian influence in Syria and with Palestinian groups, then at the London G-20 meeting, where Saudi Arabia will be asked again to help boost the International Monetary Fund's reserves to help countries badly hit by the world economic crisis.

Careful management of U.S.-Saudi ties while this succession drama plays out will be vital. On the U.S. side, there is a problem finding the right personnel. The Obama administration has yet to appoint its envoy to Riyadh. Former CENTCOM commander Gen. Anthony Zinni was reportedly offered the job as a consolation prize for not securing the Baghdad post, but he rejected it. In the interim, Bush administration novice appointee, Ford Fraker, is still in the kingdom. On the Saudi side, there is the danger that key players will slip further into dotage or simply die. King Abdullah, who turns eight-six this year, is physically limited. He could not help but be reminded of his own mortality when he visited his brother Musaid in a Riyadh hospital on March 29. Musaid, born in the same year as Abdullah, is the eldest surviving son of Ibn Saud (but was passed over for the role of king). The only disagreement on the eighty-five-year-old Sultan's condition is whether his longevity is measured in weeks or months. Even Nayef (seventy-six) is reportedly unwell, suffering from leukemia.

Some used to say that understanding the often mysterious process of succession in Saudi Arabia was less important than knowing who the candidates are. Now, neither the process nor the likely successors are clear. Moreover, the princes next in line are so old that they are unlikely to be able to rule for more than a year or so. Coupled with open disagreements within the House of Saud, this greatly increases the chances for instability in one of the linchpins of the Middle East..."

No comments: