Transition in the Kingdom: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman

Published: June 18, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, the heir apparent to the throne, Nayef bin Abdulaziz passed away on Saturday, June 16, 2012, while abroad for medical treatment. The Crown Prince served as Deputy Prime Minister (Oct 2011-Jun 2012) and Minister of the Interior (1975-2012). Nayef, a son of the Kingdom’s founder King Abdulaziz bin Saud, was named as the man next in line to be Saudi Arabia’s monarch following the death of Crown Prince Sultan last October. He was designated Second Deputy Prime Minister in March 2009 to provide leadership in the Kingdom, during overseas travels of the King and due to the incapacitation of Crown Prince Sultan. Nayef was named Crown Prince on October 27, 2011, five days after the death of Crown Prince Sultan.

The passing of Crown Prince Nayef set in motion a transition within the senior levels of the ruling family. A Crown Prince to succeed Nayef as heir apparent was announced about one hour ago. As expected by many “Saudi watchers” Prince Salman has been designated as the Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister and retains his position as Minister of Defense. Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the current Deputy Minister of Interior, will be elevated to Minister of the Interior, according to a Royal Court statement published by the Saudi Press Agency this morning.

The leadership transition was the focus of a series of exclusive interviews conducted by SUSRIS since news of Crown Prince Nayef’s passing on Saturday. We are pleased to share the perspectives of three distinguished specialists on Saudi affairs who have regularly provided their insights to you through these pages. You will hear from Professor F. Gregory Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of the 2012 Council on Foreign Relations Special Report “Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East”; Thomas Lippman, newsman, scholar, and author who recently published, “Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally”; and Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director of Research and Development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE and Beirut, Lebanon.

NOTE: These SUSRIS exclusive interviews were conducted prior to today’s announcement that Prince Salman was named Crown Prince and Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz was named Interior Minister and their remarks should be taken in that context.

We continue with Thomas Lippman.




Transition in the Kingdom: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman

[SUSRIS] Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz passed away on Saturday, June 16, after serving as Deputy Prime Minister and heir apparent since last October when long-serving Crown Prince Sultan died. It is widely assumed that Prince Salman, who followed Sultan as Defense Minister will be the next heir apparent. What are the concerns and considerations for Saudi watchers during a transition such as this one?

Thomas Lippman[Thomas Lippman] Nayef’s passing probably will make little short-term difference. Whether Salman is designated heir apparent or another, less known, son of Abdul Aziz, the basic outlines of the kingdom’s economic and strategic policies are unlikely to change much. As long as Abdullah remains on the throne, internal policies such as the gradual expansion of jobs open to women, are also unlikely to change. The real significance is that this event shortens the inevitable transition to the next generation, which could be more difficult.

[SUSRIS] Crown Prince Nayef served as Interior Minister since 1975. What will be the impact of his passing on that important post?

[Lippman] Obviously this depends on who becomes Interior Minister, but the longtime deputy is Nayef’s brother and the day-to-day manager of security affairs is his well-known son Prince Mohammed, who ran the successful campaign against al-Qaeda over the past decade. I don’t see much change here.

[SUSRIS] What do we know about Prince Salman, the likely new Deputy Prime Minister, and the impact of his probable ascent to the position of Crown Prince?

[Lippman] Salman is known for two things: Like Nayef, he is one of the so-called “Sudairi Seven” group of influential princes, and he was for many years the governor of Riyadh. Under his stewardship, Riyadh has exploded from desert backwater into glittering international capital, but it has not been well run.

[SUSRIS] The last two leadership transitions we have witnessed, Crown Prince Abdullah becoming King in 2005 and Crown Prince Nayef succeeding Crown Prince Sultan last year, were on the surface very smooth. Can you comment on the process that is in place for these changes?

[Lippman] Under Saudi law, the king must be a son or grandson of Abdul Aziz. Age is an important consideration in establishing the line of succession, but not the only one. The family council that sets the line is directed by the law to choose “the most upright” of the candidates, a qualification that leaves considerable room for maneuver and negotiation. King Abdullah issued a law that makes him the last ruler with the sole power to designate a successor; the law says future kings may nominate one, two or three candidates, and a panel of 35 senior princes can accept one of them or reject them and propose its own candidate. Because Abdullah is still alive, this process has never been tested. He can select the next crown prince unilaterally; the easy choice would seem to be Salman, the defense minister since last year and longtime governor of Riyadh. But after that nothing is certain as the list of eligible sons continues to dwindle at an accelerating rate and prominent members of the “grandsons’ generation” – including Nayef’s son Mohammed – jockey for position.

King Abdul Aziz had 36 sons, according to a compilation by “Gulf States Newsletter,” so the roster of grandsons nominally eligible to become king is extensive. Many, however, have taken themselves out of the sweepstakes by making careers in business or religion and avoiding the prominent government positions that have enabled others to show themselves to the public and build constituencies. No one outside the royal family really knows who might be in the running, but veteran students of Saudi affairs have compiled lists. These generally include Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, commander of the National Guard; Nayef’s son Mohammed, who is credited with day to day management of the successful campaign against the al-Qaeda insurgency; Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, governor of the Eastern Province, and Prince Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Mecca province, a son of King Faisal.

Most observers believe that the royal family’s collective memory of the open power struggle between King Saud and then-Crown Prince Faisal in the 1950s, which threatened to bring down the monarchy, will compel the princes to resolve the succession issue in private and put on a unified public face.


About Thomas W. Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman’s career in journalism at the Washington Post included four years as the Washington Post’s Middle East bureau chief, three years as the Post’s oil and energy reporter and a decade as the newspaper’s national security and diplomatic correspondent, he traveled extensively to Saudi Arabia. He is the author of “Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East,” “Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia,” ” Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy,” ” Understanding Islam, and Egypt After Nasser”. A writer and journalist specializing in U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs, he lives in Washington, DC.


About “Saudi Arabia on the Edge”

The Uncertain Future of an American Ally

Of all the countries in the world that are vital to the strategic and economic interests of the United States, Saudi Arabia is the least understood by the American people. Saudi Arabia’s unique place in Islam makes it indispensable to a constructive relationship between the non- Muslim West and the Muslim world. For all its wealth, the country faces daunting challenges that it lacks the tools to meet: a restless and young population, a new generation of educated women demanding opportunities in a closed society, political stagnation under an octogenarian leadership, religious extremism and intellectual backwardness, social division, chronic unemployment, shortages of food and water, and troublesome neighbors.

Today’s Saudi people, far better informed than all previous generations, are looking for new political institutions that will enable them to be heard, but these aspirations conflict with the kingdom’s strict traditions and with the House of Saud’s determination to retain all true power. Meanwhile, the country wishes to remain under the protection of American security but still clings to a system that is antithetical to American values.

Basing his work on extensive interviews and field research conducted in the kingdom from 2008 through 2011 under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations, Thomas W. Lippman dissects this central Saudi paradox for American readers, including diplomats, policymakers, scholars, and students of foreign policy.

..for more info [link]


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