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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Saudi Arabia politics: Next in line


King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud has issued a decree to establish a formal structure for deciding the succession in Saudi Arabia, thereby bring some clarity to one of the more obscure areas of the country's politics. The new system will entail setting up an allegiance commission, which will have the power to challenge the king's choice of crown prince--although this will not apply for the current holder of that post, Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud. The decree also sets out a mechanism for running the country in the event of the king or the crown prince being found to be unfit to continue in office by a specially designated medical committee.

Ageing Sauds

The initiative provides some assurance of an orderly succession, at a time when the stock of first-generation descendants of the kingdom's founder, Abdel-Aziz bin Abdel-Rahman al-Faisal al-Saud, is starting to become depleted, and the process for moving to the next generation remains obscure. According to the existing custom and practice, the succession question is discussed by a family council, and the identity of the next crown prince is signalled by his appointment to the post of second deputy prime minister--the king is prime minister, and the crown prince is the first deputy. Since succeeding his elder half-brother, Fahd, in August 2005, King Abdullah has left the second deputy prime minister position vacant.

The new decree replaces a clause in the kingdom's basic law that gave the king the discretion to appoint (or dismiss) the crown prince. That task will now be performed by the allegiance commission. This body will consist of surviving sons of King Abdel-Aziz, grandsons whose father has died or is incapacitated, and one of the king and one son of the crown prince, both chosen by the king. The chairman will be the oldest surviving son of King Abdel-Aziz.

On acceding to the throne, the new king will, in consultation with the commission, draw up a list of up to three candidates for the post of crown prince. The commission will then make its choice of candidate based on this list. In the event that the commission disagrees with the king's selection, it is empowered to make its own choice. If the king objects, the matter will be put to a vote, to be decided by a majority of commission members. The medical committee established under the decree will have the power to act in various circumstances in which the health of the king or of the crown prince is seen to compromise their fitness to remain in office.

Struggle postponed

This initiative has, in effect, relieved the current king of responsibility for deciding on the next stage in the succession. There are still about 20 surviving sons of King Abdel-Aziz, but only a handful of them are active in public life. The latter include the interior minister, Prince Nayef, the governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman, Prince Mitab, the minister of municipal affairs, and Prince Abdelmajid, the governor of Mecca. In addition, there are several strong candidates for promotion from the next generation, including two sons of the late King Faisal--Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, and Prince Turki, the ambassador to Washington--as well as sons of the current king and crown prince.

The elaborate contingencies in the event of the failing health of the king or the crown prince also provide some assurance that the kingdom will be able to deal with such events without risk to political stability.

However, the sheer complexity of the Saudi family system still raises questions about how long the kingdom can survive in its present form, with the Al Saud exercising a virtual monopoly over political power and extensive control over the country's financial resources. The decree enshrines the principles of Saudi family rule, and offers no inkling of any constitutional reform.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
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