To cap off a wild week in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Sultan has just died. It’s late, so I won’t go in-depth, but this is a critical moment for the Kingdom, though one it has been preparing for for years. Sultan is not only the next in line to the throne after Abdullah. He is also the Minister of Defense, putting him at the head of one of Saudi Arabia’s several military apparatuses. Control of the military in Saudi is closely tied with control of the state, and the current balance of power reflects that–Abdullah controls the National Guard (which he has done for decades), Sultan had Defense, and their conservative brother Nayef controls the Interior Ministry. There’s now a moment of flux, in which two key questions will be answered, likely within hours or days. First, who will be the next Crown Prince? Second, who will take over the Ministry of Defense?
The accepted opinion is that Nayef will become the next Crown Prince. This might not be the best development for the region–Nayef is known to have, to put it lightly, a traditional outlook. He is by no means a “liberal” like the sons of Faisal or Tallal. He has moderated the most conservative forces under his control, like the infamous mutawween, from time to time, but it has not been with relish.
The most likely next Minister of Defense is Sultan’s son Bandar, a former fighter pilot who has risen to great influence in the regime and now is Secretary General of the National Security Council, a kind of “Kitchen Cabinet” organization within the upper echelons of Saudi power. Bandar’s been given plenty of opportunity to practice his role–his father has probably been unable to carry out his duties for months, if not years.
Sultan’s long illness means that the House of Saud should be quite ready for this moment. However, there is a chance that all will not go as planned. The traditions point to Nayef as the next Crown Prince, but he’s quite old, and Bandar has shown himself to be a master of the back rooms of power (for instance, he undermined his successor at the Saudi Embassy, Turki bin Faisal, until the latter quit, to be replaced by one of Bandar’s allies). Bandar might make the case in the NSC that the time has come for the Kingdom to be ruled by someone who isn’t confined to a wheelchair, by someone whose faculties aren’t declining. He might try to take the prime point of succession. I don’t think he has enough power to do this–and if he comes close, Nayef could fight back (it’s a good thing this is all happening after the oil markets have closed for the weekend, as any bad news from Saudi can create rapid price spikes). However, Bandar is certainly ambitious, and he may try to cement a future role below Nayef, with the ultimate aim of making himself Nayef’s regent. It is a shame the Saudi media is so tight-lipped, because the next few hours will be exceedingly interesting.
Note: You can also read a previous post of mine that goes into a little more depth on the Bandar-Nayef dynamic.