A Princely Power Struggle Could Shake The House Of Saud

Since 1932, when the formidable desert warrior Abdulaziz proclaimed himself king of a united Saudi Arabia, the Al Saud have wielded power as absolutely as European royal families of the Middle Ages. But the several-thousand-strong Al Saud are far from united. In fact, there is a growing danger that Saudi Arabia could be shaken by another aspect of medieval monarchy: royal-family infighting.

The serious illness that struck 74-year-old King Ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud Fahd in late November--probably a stroke, compounded by partial kidney failure--has the potential to force long-simmering disputes over royal succession into the open. Squabbling among senior Saudi princes could complicate the tough transition already under way from a super-rich welfare society to a modern nation-state that has to live within reduced means. If the infighting gets serious, anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists could enter the fray.

The succession question has global consequences because the Saudi king holds sway over more than 25% of the planet's oil reserves as well as Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites for more than 1 billion Muslims. For the U.S., in particular, the stakes are huge. Saudi Arabia is the largest foreign purchaser of U.S. military hardware and a key client for such multinationals as AT&T, Boeing, and Mobil. "The world will be a different place if there is serious jockeying for position among the Al Saud," says one royal family adviser in Riyadh.

If some unconfirmed reports are to be believed, a tussle has already begun between Fahd's designated successor, 72-year-old Crown Prince Abdullah, and 71-year-old Defense Minister Prince Sultan, who is considered second in line to the throne. Such reports have a certain logic because Abdullah, head of the 70,000-strong bedouin National Guard, is only a half brother of the King, while Sultan is a full brother. Saudi observers say Abdullah and Sultan have never been close.

"CRACKS ARE APPEARING." Because of their common mothers, full Al Saud brothers tend to have similar mind-sets and allegiances. For instance, Fahd and most of his six full brothers, including Sultan and Salman, the Governor of Riyadh, are considered sophisticated, capable, and strongly pro-American. Abdullah, on the other hand, is more traditional and holds his position largely because of seniority.

According to one story making the rounds, Sultan called a meeting of some of Saudi Arabia's Islamic leaders on Dec. 7 in an attempt to pull support from Abdullah--who was out of Saudi Arabia representing the hospitalized king. Such reports have been faxed around Saudi Arabia by the London-based opposition group Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in Saudi Arabia. "Cracks are appearing," says the committee's leader, Muhammad Massari.

Although Arab and U.S. officials discount the reports, it wouldn't be the first dispute over succession to the throne. In the mid-1960s, civil war almost erupted when then Crown Prince Feisal forced his dissolute half brother, King Saud, to abdicate. Since that jarring episode, Saudi kings have largely tried to maintain a consensus among their brothers.

Since taking the throne in 1981, Fahd has damaged that consensus by filling many key posts with members of his close family, known as the Al Fahd. Recently, Fahd has even annoyed some of his full brothers by increasingly relying on his own sons and in-laws--who, critics say, have used their access to the ruler to amass huge fortunes.

CONTENDERS. Should Abdullah become king or acting sovereign if Fahd is incapacitated, he may face enormous pressure from other family members to rein in the Al Fahd group. There also could be tension over whom Abdullah appoints as his heir apparent. Because of his seniority, Sultan is the likely choice, but because of cool relations with Abdullah, that isn't a sure thing. "The danger is that Sultan, who would desperately like to become king in his own right, will feel he is losing out," says Simon Henderson, author of After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia.

Even if the aging Al Saud brothers and half brothers resolve this round smoothly, trouble will loom when the throne passes to their sons' generation. "When that happens, the whole question of succession is going to be much more difficult to resolve," says Hermann F. Eilts, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Eilts adds that some of the younger princes are "beginning to develop constituencies for an eventual run at the throne." He warns that some contenders may seek support from Islamic fundamentalists, who are becoming dangerous opponents of the pro-American Saudi regime. For instance, a powerful car bomb in Riyadh last month at a building used by U.S. military advisers killed five Americans.

While hard to fathom, this question of succession could be as crucial to the U.S. as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was. The Iraqi invasion was resolved with firepower. But there's very little the U.S. can do about royal family politics.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.