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Saudi Succession Leads to Questions

Erin Dwyer

Saudi Arabia faces the pressing issue of King Abdullah’s succession following the death of the heir, Crown Prince Sultan, this past weekend. Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, in his early 80’s, was in New York for treatment for an unspecified illness at the time of his death. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from January 2010 reported that Prince Sultan had undergone treatment for colon cancer since 2009.

In Saudi tradition, kingship is passed between brothers of one generation before moving on to the next. King Abdullah, 87 and recently recovering from back surgery, faces pressure to appoint a new crown prince as heir. It is expected that this Thursday, following the mourning period for Crown Prince Sultan, King Abdullah will name his half-brother, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, as next in line to the thrown.

Saudi princes Sultan (L) and Nayef

While the declaration of Prince Nayef is not expected to stir any immediate controversy, there is much at stake in maintaining a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship. The prince, who has held public office for close to 60 years, has a reputation as a political conservative opposed to reforming the country and women’s rights, and is known to be very protective of his family’s power.

For example, this past April, the Saudi government passed a law firmly backed by Prince Nayef that made threatening national security or insulting Islam (including the grand mufti) an illegal act. Moreover, in 2009, after King Abdullah announced a series of reforms that included appointing the first female deputy minister, Prince Nayef stated that he saw no need for elections or women in parliament. However, the prince is most famous for his comments following September 11, 2001, where he suggested that the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, was behind the attacks. And again, in an interview with a Kuwait newspaper in 2002, Nayef said, “I think they (Jews) were the protagonists of such attacks,” going further to suggest that Jews somehow benefited from 9/11.

Oil-rich, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is a strategic and crucial ally for the United States — both geographically and economically. In the changing Middle East that has seen U.S. allies falter and fall, it is important for Saudi Arabia to remain on Washington’s side. As King Abdullah’s health further deteriorates, however, the question of how the next Saudi king will sway remains to be seen.