Original Articles

Saudi Arabia without King Abdullah – by Hassan Hanizadeh

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz’s deteriorating health conditions and his possible death raises questions about the fate of Saudi Arabia after the 86-year-old king’s demise.

Given the uncertain future ahead of 84-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who has kept a low profile since last year and refrained from talking to local media, the possible death of the Saudi monarch may drag highly traditional and tribal Saudi Arabia into a clan war.

As the power structure in non-democratic Saudi Arabia is based on the distribution of key posts among members of tribes close to the Al Saud royal family, King Abdullah’s passing will trigger massive political chaos across the tribal nation.

Al-Shammar, Sudairy, Bani Khalid, Bani Tamim, Anza, and Al-Ajman tribes, respectively, share the most power in security, political, financial and military domains in Saudi Arabia.

The Sudairy tribe currently has the lion’s share of power in religious, security and royal guard sectors. The Shammar tribe controls foreign policy and oil and the other tribes are powerful in financial and stock exchange matters.

Most Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia are from the Sudairy clan which has deep ideological differences with Shammar — a tribe closer to the Shias.

King Abdullah’s mother, Fahda, descended from the powerful Shammar tribe and was the daughter of former Shammar tribe chief, Asi Shuraim.

Former Saudi King Abdul Aziz was married to four women from Al Shammar, which is a great advantage for the tribe.

The power of a Saudi clan depends on how close it is to the king and the royal family. By the same token, the Shammar tribe has been the most powerful since 2005, when King Abdullah ascended to the throne.

The Sudairy tribe, which is a rival of Al Shamamr, is close to ailing Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz. But those affiliated with the tribe fear the heir to the throne may die before coming to power.

Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz’s mother, Hessa bint Ahmad Al Sudair, one of the influential wives of King Abdul Aziz and the mother of King Fahd and Princes Abd al-Rahman, Nayef, Turki, Salman, and Ahmed.

Former Saudi King Abdul Aziz had 32 wives from influential Saudi tribes who have given him seventy children.

The Sudairy clan cemented its pillars of power, particularly in religious centers such as those charged with promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice, after June 1982 when King Fahd, the fifth king of the Al Saud dynasty, assumed power.

Ever since, most key posts at the Ministry of Defense, Royal Guard Regiment, Saudi security apparatus, and major embassies have been assigned to those associated with the Sudairy clan.

Former Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz’s death in August 2005 and his step-brother King Abdullah’s rise to power prompted those affiliated with the Shammar tribe to take a giant leap toward capturing the power bases in Saudi Arabia.

In pre-Islam Arabia, a tribe’s power and influence were measured based on the number of men as well as the number of relatives by marriage to members of other tribes.

Therefore, the Shammar and Sudairy tribes pride themselves on the fact that the former Saudi king has chosen most of his wives from these two clans.

Former Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s unexpected return to Riyadh and the sudden closure of universities across Saudi Arabia bears witness to King Abdullah’s deteriorating health.

Prince Bandar, the head of the Supreme National Security Council until 2005, was the Saudi ambassador to the US for twenty-two years and one of the most influential figures in the Al Saud dynasty.

Prince Bandar, whose mother was an African slave serving the Saudi royal family, has a close relationship with the Republicans in the United States.

During the presidency of George Bush junior and George Bush senior, Bandar managed to convince the US Congress to supply Saudi Arabia with super-modern weapons.

In effect, Bandar and the Bush family are business partners in a joint oil drilling venture in Texas worth USD 500 million.

So Bandar could play a key role in distorting the investigation into the 9/11 incident despite the fact that 17 of the 18 terrorists behind the attacks were Saudi nationals.

Bandar is said to have invested heavily in the election campaigns of George W. Bush during his two terms in office and that is why George W. Bush feels indebted to the Saudi dynasty.

Shorty after the 9/11 incident, George W. Bush accused certain regional countries of training terrorists while refraining from revealing the identities and nationalities of the perpetrators of the attacks.

Given that the Saudi dynasty has well over six thousand members all of whom are assigned to key posts, the possible death of King Abdullah could result in a power struggle.

This comes as US authorities, who are prepared to hear the news of King Abdullah’s death have conducted intensive consultations with King Abdul Aziz’s descendants.

Numerous trips to Iraq by General David Petraeus, the former commander of US forces in the region, and Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador to Riyadh, and their consultations with the members of the Saudi dynasty, shows Washington’s misgivings over the possible death of the Saudi monarch.

In his several meetings with top Saudi generals, Petraeus discouraged them from launching a coup should the king die. In the meantime, Crocker stressed the need to name 77-year-old Prince Nayef, Second Deputy Prime Minister and former long time Interior Minister, as King Abdullah’s successor.

Considering the fact that Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has contracted Parkinson’s disease, and Bandar has lymphatic cancer, the White House would rather see Nayef, the number three man in the Al Saud royal family, take the reigns of power.

The reason why Americans prefer price Nayef as the king is that he had a key role in cracking down on al-Qaeda as former Saudi King Abdul Aziz’s eleventh child.

So, given the tribal structure in the Al Saud regime and the clans’ desire to share power, the political vacuum resulting from the possible deaths of the Saudi king and the crown prince could trigger a political tsunami which might ripple across the whole region.

The outbreak of tribal conflicts in Saudi Arabia may divide the country into eastern and western parts between Sudairy and Shammar tribes, a phenomenon which does not sound far-fetched given the situation in Saudi Arabia, widespread corruption among King Abdul Aziz’s descendants and the growing gap between the people and the ruling elite.

About the author

Shiraz Paracha

Mr. Paracha has worked as a journalist, with newspapers, television, radio and online companies in Britain, Central Asia and Pakistan. Between 1995 and1996, hosted and presented very popular television programs (Awami Forum and Awami Jirga) in Pakistan. His former employers include the BBC and Press TV among other notable names. Mr. Paracha is also a journalism professor and has taught journalism and communication courses at international universities outside Pakistan.

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  • i just can’t wait to see this happen. al-e saud burying under their own rubble. this will just strengthen my faith in God.

  • Saudi Arabia urges US attack on Iran to stop nuclear programme
    • Embassy cables show Arab allies want strike against Tehran
    • Israel prepared to attack alone to avoid its own 9/11
    • Iranian bomb risks ‘Middle East proliferation, war or both’

    Ian Black and Simon Tisdall
    guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 November 2010 18.13 GMT

    Embassy cables reveal the US, Israel and Arab states suspect Iran is close to acquiring nuclear weapons despite Tehran’s insistence that its programme is designed to supply energy. Photograph: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

    King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, according to leaked US diplomatic cables that describe how other Arab allies have secretly agitated for military action against Tehran.

    The revelations, in secret memos from US embassies across the Middle East, expose behind-the-scenes pressures in the scramble to contain the Islamic Republic, which the US, Arab states and Israel suspect is close to acquiring nuclear weapons. Bombing Iranian nuclear facilities has hitherto been viewed as a desperate last resort that could ignite a far wider war.

    The Saudi king was recorded as having “frequently exhorted the US to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons programme”, one cable stated. “He told you [Americans] to cut off the head of the snake,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir said, according to a report on Abdullah’s meeting with the US general David Petraeus in April 2008.

    The cables also highlight Israel’s anxiety to preserve its regional nuclear monopoly, its readiness to go it alone against Iran – and its unstinting attempts to influence American policy. The defence minister, Ehud Barak, estimated in June 2009 that there was a window of “between six and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable”. After that, Barak said, “any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage.”

    The leaked US cables also reveal that:

    • Officials in Jordan and Bahrain have openly called for Iran’s nuclear programme to be stopped by any means, including military.

    • Leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referred to Iran as “evil”, an “existential threat” and a power that “is going to take us to war”.

    • Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, warned in February that if diplomatic efforts failed, “we risk nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, war prompted by an Israeli strike, or both”.

    • Major General Amos Yadlin, Israeli’s military intelligence chief, warned last year: “Israel is not in a position to underestimate Iran and be surprised like the US was on 11 September 2001.”

    Asked for a response to the statements, state department spokesman PJ Crowley said today it was US policy not to comment on materials, including classified documents, which may have been leaked.

    Iran maintains that its atomic programme is designed to supply power stations, not nuclear warheads. After more than a year of deadlock and stalling, a fresh round of talks with the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany is due to begin on 5 December.

    But in a meeting with Italy’s foreign minister earlier this year, Gates said time was running out. If Iran were allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, the US and its allies would face a different world in four to five years, with a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. King Abdullah had warned the Americans that if Iran developed nuclear weapons “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia”.

    America is not short of allies in its quest to thwart Iran, though some are clearly more enthusiastic than the Obama administration for a definitive solution to Iran’s nuclear designs. In one cable, a US diplomat noted how Saudi foreign affairs bureaucrats were moderate in their views on Iran, “but diverge significantly from the more bellicose advice we have gotten from senior Saudi royals”.

    In a conversation with a US diplomat, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain “argued forcefully for taking action to terminate their [Iran’s] nuclear programme, by whatever means necessary. That programme must be stopped. The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.” Zeid Rifai, then president of the Jordanian senate, told a senior US official: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb. Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.”

    In talks with US officials, Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed favoured action against Iran, sooner rather than later. “I believe this guy is going to take us to war … It’s a matter of time. Personally, I cannot risk it with a guy like [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. He is young and aggressive.”

    In another exchange , a senior Saudi official warned that Gulf states may develop nuclear weapons of their own, or permit them to be based in their countries to deter the perceived Iranian threat.

    No US ally is keener on military action than Israel, and officials there have repeatedly warned that time is running out. “If the Iranians continue to protect and harden their nuclear sites, it will be more difficult to target and damage them,” the US embassy reported Israeli defence officials as saying in November 2009.

    There are differing views within Israel. But the US embassy reported: “The IDF [Israeli Defence Force], however, strikes us as more inclined than ever to look toward a military strike, whether launched by Israel or by us, as the only way to destroy or even delay Iran’s plans.” Preparations for a strike would likely go undetected by Israel’s allies or its enemies.

    The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, told US officials in May last yearthat he and the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, agreed that a nuclear Iran would lead others in the region to develop nuclear weapons, resulting in “the biggest threat to non-proliferation efforts since the Cuban missile crisis”.

    The cables also expose frank, even rude, remarks about Iranian leaders, their trustworthiness and tactics at international meetings. Abdullah told another US diplomat: “The bottom line is that they cannot be trusted.” Mubarak told a US congressman: “Iran is always stirring trouble.” Others are learning from what they describe as Iranian deception. “They lie to us, and we lie to them,” said Qatar’s prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim Jaber al-Thani.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/28/us-embassy-cables-saudis-iran