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.