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The Saudi succession battle spills into the press

A number of smart people have spent considerable energy on the question of what will happen after Egypt’s 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak finally passes on to that great pyramid in the sky. But it may actually be Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by the 86-year-old King Abdullah, that is the next major U.S. ally in ...

SPA
SPA

A number of smart people have spent considerable energy on the question of what will happen after Egypt’s 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak finally passes on to that great pyramid in the sky. But it may actually be Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by the 86-year-old King Abdullah, that is the next major U.S. ally in the Middle East to become embroiled in a succession struggle.

The Saudi monarch was a no-show on Saturday for his traditional role to oversee the hajj; the state press said that he was recuperating from a herniated disc. Abdullah delegated the role to Prince Nayef, 77, the interior minister and second deputy prime minister.

Crown Prince Sultan, 86, is officially the next in line to become king should Abdullah pass away. But Sultan, who also serves as minister of defense, is seriously ill; it’s doubtful that he has the capacity to take the throne. But like clockwork, to dispel any jitters caused by Abdullah’s absence from the hajj, the Saudi press agency published a photo of Sultan engaged in serious matters of state from Morocco — that’s him, above, signing a contract for the construction of an airport in Jeddah.

Nor did the king himself escape a media blitz meant to sweep away any rumors about his illness. The Saudi press agency’s account of Abdullah’s lunch today, where he assured assorted princes and foreign dignitaries of his good health, was updated four times. The agency also published a photo of Abdullah, leaning on a cane.

Even if the health of Abdullah, Sultan, and Nayef doesn’t immediately take a turn for the worse, these gerontocrats can’t realistically be expected to control the levers of power in Saudi Arabia for much longer. Writing in FP last month, Simon Henderson sketched out a scenario where these principals would hand down power to their sons and younger brothers — who are understandably anxious to prove that their family line remains relevant during this transition period.

As he wrote in today: "The big question is whether King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan appeared in public because they wanted to — or whether it was because their sons were determined to show that their fathers were still players in the game of Saudi succession politics."

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