August 01, 2005

Crown Prince Abdullah: The Impact on Saudi Regional Stability

Anthony H. Cordesman

King Fahd's death, and Crown Prince Abdullah's accession to the throne, is unlikely to have any negative impact on Saudi stability and may well help the Kingdom move forward in dealing with a number of major issues. Although rumors always persist of divisions and conflicts within the Saudi royal family, the reality has been very different. Prince Abdullah was selected as Crown Prince in 1982 -nearly a quarter of a century ago. He has acted as de facto regent since King Fahd's stroke in 1995. Since that time, he has been seen as both a supporter of reform, and traditional in values - free of corruption and deeply Islamic. He has encouraged the next generation of princes to support reform, pushed for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, and supported dialogue with the West to counter Islamic extremism.

He has also steadily expanded his de facto control of the Royal Court, the Council of Ministers, Majlis, and royal appointments. King Fahd's death will now give him full power, and he may well be able to move forward in several areas of reform, exploiting the ties he has already developed to "reform" factions in the family, technocrats, and elite. Abdullah is also very unlikely to alter the Saudi system of rule by consensus among the senior princes, and close consultation with senior technocrats, religious figures, key tribal figures, and key businessmen. Saudi Arabia may not be a democracy, but it also has little relation to the Western concept of an absolute monarchy. Rulers are expected to show merit and the ability to govern, to consult, and to be open to appeal of their decisions. Decisions at the top are generally reached by consensus, and often after extensive conversations with those outside the royal family. When major disagreements do persist, decisions tend to be deferred. Power is also often compartmented, with senior princes taking clear responsibility in given areas -- a compartmentation that minimizes rivalry and tensions between them. The choice of Sultan as the new Crown Prince has been agreed to since the mid-1990s. Sultan is, however, only slightly younger than Abdullah (they both are reported to be 81), and has uncertain health after an operation for stomach cancer. He is, however, still very active and a key power in the Kingdom, and his son Khalid has emerged as a major force in the Ministry of Defense and Saudi Arabia's security structure. If there is a succession issue, it many come after Abdullah and Sultan. Analysts have raised the issue for some years that the direct sons of Saudi Arabia's founder are growing old, and how and when a King will be chosen that is not a direct descendent of Saudi Arabia.

There are, however, two princes in line for the succession and that are both sons of King Abdel al Aziz that are roughly ten years younger. Prince Naif is 72, He is the Minister of the Interior, is perhaps the most conservative senior royal, and one who's potential status as "No. 3" has been the subject of debate inside and outside the Kingdom. Naif is deeply conservative, and there have been reports that he is anti-reform, has quarreled with other princes, and has acted to block reform. In practice, however, the fact that Naif has given some ill-judged public speeches may be misleading. He does not seem to be anti-reform as much as pro-security. His success in dealing with terrorism and Al Qa'ida has strengthened his reputation, as has the success of his two sons in dealing with internal security matters. The Naif vs. Abdullah and the reformers debate postulated by some outside analysts may reflect some real differences over policy, but both Princes have shown they can work closely together in the past, and it seems premature to judge Naif's potential actions or see him as any block to Abdullah's efforts in areas like economic and educational reform.

Prince Salman, age 71 and the Governor of Riyadh, is another Prince with a high reputation, and one seen as more pro-reform. He has been a leader in advocating religious dialogue with the West, and his son has been a major force seeking educational reform. As for the leading princes of the next generation, Prince Khalid is emerging as a public figure. Crown Prince Abdullah's son Prince Mitab also has a solid reputation. Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal and his brother Turki both have high reputation in the Kingdom, and are seen as key figures in the reform movement. Younger Princes generally are expected to keep a low profile and to defer publicly to their fathers, but this scarcely means they are not active in government, competent, or eventual potential candidates for the throne. As for key policy issues, few major policy changes are likely in the short term. The long illness of Fahd has already created a “transition” that has lasted for nearly a decade.

High oil revenues have brought a great deal of economic growth and the short-term pressures for reform have been eased by the flow of money. The key issues Crown Prince Abdullah will face in the near term are (i) Islamist extremism as an internal and regional threat, (ii) uncertainties over Iraq, (iii) rise of a nuclear Iran, (iv) the lack of meaningful progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process, (v) instability and economic problems in Yemen, and (vi) the overheating of the Saudi economic and stock market with so much oil revenue that values threaten to create a bubble that could produce a major collapse of stock market values. Longer term issues include (i) the problem of “Saudisation” and finding jobs for Saudi Arabia's rapidly expanding population; (ii) dealing with the high cost of modernization and expanding Saudi Arabia's infrastructure to deal with population growth; expanding and modernizing the Saudi educational system, (iii) diversifying the economic to reduce dependence on oil export income and create jobs, (iv) developing a long-term strategy for investing in the development of Saudi upstream and down stream oil and gas resources, (v) modernizing Saudi social customs without creating tensions with Islamic conservatives, and (vi) modernizing the political system to expand the political role of those outside the royal family and reduce or eliminate subsidies to the princes and princesses who do not make a major contribution to Saudi governance.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A Burke Chair in Strategy at the CSIS. He and Nawaf Obaid have written Saudi Security: Military and Internal Security Developments, which will be published by the CSIS and Praeger this fall. Anthony H. Cordesman is also author Saudi Arabia Enters the 21st Century: The Military Dimension, Westport, Praeger/Greenwood, June 2003, and Saudi Arabia Enters the 21st Century: Energy Politics, Economics, and Security in the Middle East, Westport, Praeger/Greenwood, June 2003. For more information about CSIS programs on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, please visit

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