11 November 2011

Saudi Arabian Succession and the Future of the Middle East

Saudi Arabia's strategic importance and the attention it gets in corporate media are inversely proportional.

When Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud died on 22 October, we got the usual commentary about how he was the Minister of Defense from 1962 onward and how he dealt with every US president since JFK.

To their credit, on that day, Daily Beast got the old CIA hand and presidential adviser Bruce Riedel* ask the very pertinent question about Crown Prince Nayef and his chances to become king. Despite the existence of an Allegiance Council created to ratify the next in line, most people assume that Nayef will succeed his half brother Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud, who is also quite old and quite ill.

Nayef is a hardliner and he is likely to reverse the modest reforms started by the current king Abdullah. He also hates Iranians with a passion and he has close ties to the Wahhabi clerics. The fact that he hates Al Qaeda seems to reassure some people in Washington but I do not share their perspective of benign neglect.

Let's examine where we stand right now.

Saudi Arabia has intervened in Bahrain to stop the Shiite majority (70 percent of the population) to gain well deserved rights and they even sent army divisions to help suppress the protest movement. They gave Yemen's Saleh refuge after he was wounded by a bomb in his palace. And even though they support his departure, they want him replaced by another strong man. Tunisian former strong man Ben Ali took refuge in Saudi Arabia and he is still there.

In their self appointed role as the patron saint of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia took a tough attitude towards Bashar al-Assad of Syria and since mid-summer have been urging the Turks to get rid of him.

A propos, Bruce Reidel has this observation about the late Crown Prince Sultan:
He built an extremely expensive army and air force with billions of dollars of purchases from America and Europe, but he was always reluctant to use it in combat. For Sultan, wars were better fought by your allies than by your own troops.
Interestingly, earlier this year, Saudi Arabia announced that they will invest in Turkish agriculture and industry $600 billion in the next two decades. They were careful to emphasize that it was not for construction or energy exploration. It was good old-fashioned direct foreign investment in productive sectors of the economy.

If your GNP is a little over one trillion dollars and someone pledges to invest an amount that is roughly 60 percent of your GNP, how likely is it that you will tell them off in a disagreement?

How likely is it that you will do their bidding when asked?

Considering the advanced age of all the sons of Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Nayef is likely to succeed Abdullah in the next year or so.

Given the fluidity of political events in the region do you think this eventuality warranted a little more attention and analysis?
*If you have time, watch the BBC documentary "Secret Pakistan"

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