Saudi Arabia has been in the news again for the past few days over a proposed new “anti-terrorism” law that would make it a crime to criticize the king, among other things. (Frankly, as someone who follows the Kingdom, I was a bit surprised that this wasn’t already in place.) Western human rights groups and the tatters of Saudi civil society have been up in arms, saying that this is a step towards a level of police statism unprecedented even for Saudi. They’re right. It’s hard not to see this as the iron fist in the velvet glove of the Saudi response to the Arab Spring. While the al Saud have been very forceful abroad, supporting Mubarak, managing Saleh in Yemen, and occupying Bahrain, they’ve been friendly at home, launching a mass public spending program and putting restrictions on foreign workers in an effort to reduce Saudi unemployment. I suppose we should have been expecting the other shoe to drop at some point. This seems to be that moment. If the law gets royal approval, Saudi dissent will be driven even further underground–and we all know how healthy that policy has been for Saudi in the past.
It’s impossible not to see palace maneuvering at play here. To bring you up to speed on contemporary Saudi politics, there are more or less five key men in the Saudi system, predominantly from the second generation of Saudi leadership (the first being ibn Saud–given that he conquered Riyadh in 1902, we can appreciate how incredibly old these men are). At the top is King Abdullah, who controls the prestige of the crown and the Custodianship as well as the National Guard. Below him are the four most powerful princes. Crown Prince Sultan is officially next in line to the throne, and is Minister of Defence, while Prince Nayef is Minister of the Interior. These three men form a kind of inner circle, as they have control of the means of violence and thus, when push comes to shove, would be most formidable in a power struggle. Also in positions of power are Prince Saud ibn Faisal, the Foreign Minister, and Prince Salman, Governor of Riyadh and financier of London’s Asharq al Awsat newspaper. The system ideally balances itself, as power is dispersed among so many rivals that hegemony or revolt are impossible. However, we are under non-ideal circumstances. All of the princes–even third generation princes like Saud, are quite old. It’s remarkable nobody big has died lately, but everybody knows it will come eventually, and they’re positioning themselves for the struggle that will follow.
The struggle has been dominated by Prince Sultan’s clan. Sultan himself is in bad health, prompting endless rumors in the press. His dynamic son Bandar, former Ambassador to the United States, current secretary of the National Security Council, and bon vivant, has been conducting high-level diplomacy around the world. His very senior postings and relative youth certainly invite speculation that he could be a future king–and perhaps sooner than we think. This may be the cause of this new anti-terror law. Anti-terrorism is the domain of Nayef’s Interior Ministry. By giving himself virtually unlimited powers–the Interior Minister can “take the necessary actions to protect internal security from any terrorist threat“–he’s obviously increasing his chances of getting the throne. If Crown Prince Sultan is really as sick as the Iranian media has suggested, we have to wonder if he would be coronated; in the resulting fluidity, Bandar might conceivably try to take his father’s place. Nayef hasn’t been sitting on the sidelines for six decades to watch a young upstart take the throne.
We have to wonder where Abdullah’s hand is in this. After reading Karim Sadjadpour’s excellent piece on Khamenei and Machiavellianism this afternoon, I do wonder if Nayef is being made victim of a little Florentine maneuvering here. The law is almost certainly going to be unpopular, and it’s already being scorned outside the Kingdom. What to Nayef is a power grab might be to Abdullah a trial balloon–or it could be a deliberate attempt at undermining. If Nayef makes enough enemies at home and alienates allies abroad, he’ll be a worse candidate for the throne regardless of whether he has a few new powers; even better, Abdullah can step in and propose a more moderate version of the law that will still grant the state special powers to deal with the Arab Spring, but that will walk back many of Nayef’s claims and make Abdullah look like a pragmatist. This possibility, coupled with Bandar’s incredibly rapid ascent in spite of his many rumored personal struggles, makes me think that Abdullah wants Bandar as his de facto successor–Abdullah dies, what’s left of Sultan is coronated, and Bandar is made Prime Minister and perhaps Crown Prince.