It looks like the rumors the other day that Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had beaten the odds to become the next Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia were false. The King has apparently decided to wait until after Sultan’s funeral today to make a decision, and the word on the street is that the Allegiance Council–the body of Al Saud bigwigs and cadet branches charged with smoothing transitions–will meet imminently. All eyes remain on Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the Interior Minister with solid conservative credentials and an authoritarian reputation. Assuming Nayef gets the nod, the Defense Ministry remains in the air (Khaled bin Sultan is a favorite, though it would be foolish to write off Bandar bin Sultan, Khaled’s younger brother). The choice of the new Second Deputy Prime Minister (Nayef’s current role) may be most telling for the Kingdom’s future direction. Salman is the most likely to take the position. His solid reputation across the royal house’s different factions could help silence any controversies about Nayef, but it would also suggest that there is an unswerving commitment to seniority as the key element in succession, which would guarantee a long string of short-lived octogenarian kings, a sure recipe for instability. Of course, that instability might be twenty years away–politics moves very slowly in the Kingdom–but it would still be a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy. Salman could become a great king whose name echoes through the ages like that of Feisal or Abdulaziz, but his succession would fail to stop the trend. Surely there are capable and politically adept men under 50, or under 60, among Muhammad bin Saud’s many sons. If the current trend continues, we may see one such man ignore the squabbles of his decrepit uncles and seize the throne–after all, wasn’t the modern Kingdom founded in a breach of the rules of succession, with Abdulrahman bypassed by his aggressive son?
Amidst all this comes a controversy. The United States has dispatched a delegation headed by Vice President Joe Biden to pay respects to Sultan. The delegation, like those from other non-Muslim states, did not attend the Crown Prince’s funeral today. The Saudis then announced that King Abdullah would not receive the non-Muslim delegations until the conclusion of a three-day mourning period customary in Islam. This is an unusual development. If Muslim, and particularly Wahhabi, funeral customs were being followed, Sultan would have been buried within 24 hours of his death, rather than several days later, and such grand ceremony and attention would likely have been avoided. (I have not seen any photographs of Sultan’s actual grave, but I suspect it is, in keeping with Wahhabi custom, very simple.) The Al Saud were flexible. They were also quite flexible in the past–when King Feisal was assassinated in 1975, his funeral ceremony (taking place after his burial) was attended by a range of Christian dignitaries, including then-Prince Juan Carlos of Spain. They were not excluded from the mosque–indeed, they did not even had to remove their shoes before entering it. (See, for example, David Holden and Richard Johns’ 1982 classic history The House of Saud.)
The exclusion of the American delegation is thus clearly not in keeping with traditional Saudi practice. Why, then, was their presence refused? This was clearly not expected by the Americans–the Vice President reportedly even had to make further changes to his schedule when he found he would be meeting Abdullah at a different date. One possibility is that the Al Saud simply feel they must be more cautious than usual about inflaming religious conservatives, who have had multiple advances since the days of Feisal. It could also be symptomatic of the influence of the conservative Nayef. However, it is hard not to suspect that this is a political gesture stemming from Al Saud discontent over American opposition to the Palestinian bid for UN recognition. Royal mouthpiece Prince Turki al Faisal, in a series of op-eds in American newspapers over the past year, has argued that America’s position jeopardizes U.S.-Saudi relations, and that the Kingdom may take a more independent path in the international sphere.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has. With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.
Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy. Like our recent military support for Bahrain’s monarchy, which America opposed, Saudi Arabia would pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States, including opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and refusing to open an embassy there despite American pressure to do so. The Saudi government might part ways with Washington in Afghanistan and Yemen as well.
This is hogwash. The specific threats that Turki makes are not threats. The Kingdom has opposed al-Maliki for years now and was not showing signs of moving towards an embassy in Baghdad; the Saudi government also has every reason to support American antiterror policies in Yemen, for the most natural destination for Yemeni terror is Riyadh. The U.S.A.-K.S.A. alliance is based on deep mutual interests in regional stability, a contained Iran, and relatively cheap oil. Backing away from the United States would win the Kingdom the approval of a few in the “Arab Street,” but it would do so at the cost of leaving the Al Saud alone in the face of an Iran that, with Iraq unoccupied, stands a chance of actually creating a “Shiite Crescent” extending along the Kingdom’s border and into strategic areas like Lebanon and the Strait of Hormuz. Still, Prince Turki is correct that the current extremely unpopular American track puts domestic pressure on the Saudi government to disagree vehemently. This explains the snub of Biden: it is an empty gesture. We might expect more of these from the Kingdom in the coming years, but we can be assured that beneath the surface, the alliance will remain close.