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Inside Saudi Succession

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Succession and the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

November 23rd 2009

Arab Topics - King Abdullah2
King Abdullah

Given Saudi Arabia's strategic position and its leadership roles in both Islam and international energy markets, the close relationship between Riyadh and Washington is crucial to a range of U.S. policy concerns: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East peace process, and energy.

The character of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has often been dictated by the personality and style of the king at the time. King Fahd, who ruled from 1982 to 2005 (thought he was plagued by poor health after a stoke in 1995), was seen as pro-American and cooperated closely, although often discreetly, with Washington on a range of foreign policy concerns, including in Central America, Afghanistan, and on the middle East peace process. King Abdullah, whose rule began in 2005 but who had stood in for Fahd after 1995, has protected the relationship but has been more cautious and at times even confrontational. In 2002, with relations in turmoil because of the involvement of Saudis in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the kingdom, apparently trying to deflect attention away from itself by spotlighting clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, was even prepared to privately threaten a temporary cutoff of oil exports because of U.S. support for Israel.

For this reason and others, the views and personalities of future kings should be of intense interest to officials and political leaders in Washington. Although U.S. oil companies provided the foundations for the kingdom's oil industry and U.S. arms exporters have supplied much of its military arsenal, the relationship involves far more than just oil and security. Even this analysis avoids the basic source of tension: the role of religion in Saudi life. As a departing British ambassador once noted: "Islam, which governs every detail of life, is the central feature of Saudi Arabia." The result is that despite the oil and security aspects of the relationship, there remains a distance between the two countries because of their widely differing perspectives on such issues as political freedoms, religious tolerance, and women's rights.

For the United States, the possibility of Crown Prince Sultan becoming king is unattractive, even though ill health, which would almost certainly make his reign short. Although he is seen as pro-American, his reputation for corruption is judged to make him unpopular among the royal family as well as the kingdom's general population. Sultan's corruption is legendary: A former British ambassador to the kingdom once noted that, as defense minister, Sultan "has of course a corrupt interest in all contracts."

If the apparent crown prince in waiting, Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Nayef, succeeds after or instead of Sultan, the U.S.-Saudi relationship could become even more awkward. Nayef has a reputation for being difficult, refusing, for example, to increase security in May 2003 before al-Qaeda attacks on foreign housing compounds in Riyadh in which nine Americans died despite the warnings of U.S. diplomats. He had earlier suggested that Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, was behind the September 11 attacks on the United States. He has also come out against the need for elections or women runing for office. While Saudi counterterrorism actions are now much improved, Nayef is still viewed as being too close to Saudi Arabia's conservative clerics.

Even more challenging for the United States, both Sultan and Nayef were reportedly paying off Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s to prevent al-Qaeda from launching attacks in the kingdom. Western pressure on the kingdom to stop such payments, purportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, intensified after the September 11 attacks. The eventual termination of payments may well have contributed to the al-Qaeda attacks in Riyadh in 2003, before which the kingdom had not appeared to see itself as a terrorist target.

U.S. officials steer well clear of any public comment about preferences for succession in Saudi Arabia. But the subject is often discussed among Saudis themselves, who judge that the U.S. pressure could be effective, though this appears unlikely. In 2003, a small, London-based Arabic newspaper reported that U.S. ambassador Robert Jordan had remarked at a private dinner party in Riyadh that after Abdullah, succession should skip Sultan and Nayef and go to someone in the next generation, such as Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. In response, Jordan says he merely asked the other guests how they expected anyone from a younger generation to be named.

Among the current generation of princes, Salman, the governor of Riyadh and a full brother of Sultan and Nayef, is often viewed favorably by foreign diplomats and appears well respected in the royal family and the wider population. But his health is thought to be uncertain (two sons have died of heart problems) and his worldview is colored by prejudice: he told the U.S. ambassador after the September 11 attacks that "[t]his has to have been a Zionist plot." Salman, however, remains a possible future compromise king; although younger than Nayef, he is arguably more acceptable to the royal family and, of the available choices, to the United States as well.

Whoever becomes king, Washington will hope for a continuation in the recovery in relations since the direct involvement of fifteen Saudis in the September 11 attacks. To the astonishment of many, by 2008 the relationship had already been largely repaired. Under the leadership of King Abdullah, especially since his accession to the throne upon the death of King Fahd in 2005, the kingdom has built a reputation for cracking down on extremist Islamists; made advance in interfaith dialogue, and thanks to a period of high oil prices, established huge financial reserves, thus becoming a key member of G-20 meetings of major economic powers.

In 2009, President Barack Obama confirmed this improvement in the relationship by briefly visiting the kingdom in June before traveling to Cairo to give a major speech on the relationship between the United States and Muslims. Photographs of Obama and Abdullah together suggested that the two men had developed a warm relationship.

Challenges remain, however. The al-Saud have urged the United States to be firmer in its response to the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons—but only in private. In public, the Saudi stance is ambiguous, but Riyadh is fearful that diplomatic engagement will not be sufficient. On the Middle East peace process, Riyadh still appears to be reluctant to engage with Israel in advance of an Israeli withdrawal as outlined in the 2003 Arab Peace Initiative. As the price of oil strengthens from late 2008 lows, energy could also be a contentious issue, although President Obama has backed away from campaign rhetoric about the need to eliminate Middle East oil imports into the United States. Irag is another source of tension—the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is too closely aligned to Iran for Riyadh's liking. The Saudi dimension of the new Afghanistan-Pakistan, or AfPak, strategy also looms large; Riyadh's help in legitimizing an antijihadist consensus in Pakistan could be crucial. But there is also a prospect that Saudi Arabia will look to Pakistan for nuclear guarantees to supplement or replace U.S. security promises.

What policies a new king will adopt—as opposed to his style—are not readily apparent from his stance while a prince. For example, Abdullah, prior to becoming king, had been considered cool, if not hostile, to the United States, opposing a request to Washington for military help after Sadam Hussein's 1990 invasion of neighboring Kuwait. But this view of Abdullah has changed. In fact, his previous persona seems to have been deliberately constructed, both by him, to contrast himself with the "pro-American" Fahd, and by his detractors among the Sudairi princes, to undermine his claim to the throne. IN fact, the many years of a U.S. supply and training relationship with Abdullah's Saudi Arabian National Guard suggests Abdullah was always mindful of the importance of the U.S. relationship.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is both longstanding and broad. This study confines its recommendations to steps that the United States can take to accommodate the kingdom's leadership changes and to limit any resultant instability. Given the advanced ages of the Saudi princes, the reigns of the next several Saudi kings are likely to be short and their style uncertain.

The following actions can help the United States meet the Saudi succession challenge.

Schedule regular visits to the kingdom by high-level U.S. civilian and military officials so that the king and senior princes can be kept fully informed about U.S. concerns and expectations on a range of policy issues. The United States cannot select the kinds of Saudi Arabia, but it can emphasize the importance that Washington places on bilateral ties and encourage the Saudis to avoid a candidate who will put that relationship in jeopardy.

Appoint a U.S. ambassador of sufficient stature that daily diplomatic interaction no longer depends primarily on the Saudi ambassador in Washington. On June 4, 2009, the White House announced that Brig. Gen. James B. smith, a retired U.S. Air Force F-15 pilot and former executive at Raytheon, had been nominated for the post in Riyadh; the appoint is now confirmed. Apart from a temporary assignment in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Smith has no reported background in either Saudi affairs or the Middle East. Like his five immediate predecessors, Smith is a political appointee, not a foreign service officer. Although his status as an appointee is not necessarily a disadvantage, the ultimately short tenures of recent U.S. ambassadors to Saudi Arabia are not helpful to bilateral relationship building. The last Arabic-speaking U.S. ambassador serving in Riyadh was Chas Freeman, a foreign service office, who served until August 1992. On June 1, 2009, retired U.S. ambassador Richard Erdman became chargé d'affaires in Riyadh and was in place for President Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia just two days later. Erdman will presumably depart Riyadh when General Smith arrives to take up the post of ambassador.

Boost the staff of the embassy in Riyadh and of the consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran. The work of embassy and consulate staff, seldom easy, has been hampered in recent years by the need for tight security (the Jeddah consulate was attacked by terrorists in 2004); a shortage of Arabic speakers; and high staff turnover, a consequence of short, unaccompanied tours of duty. In June 2009, Washington announced that adult dependents, that is, wives and husbands, of U.S. diplomats could return to the kingdom but, that children could not.

Diplomats, visiting officials, and military officers need to work with a broader range of Saudi princes so that the leadership transition, perhaps into the next generation of the royal family, can be effectively managed. This process will require extreme care. Overt U.S. efforts to influence succession would likely be resisted, as well as resented, and would therefore be counterproductive.

Saudi Arabia remains a key player in Middle Eastern politics as well as in the international economy. Once a new king has been selected, the United States will need to invest time and effort in developing a close relationship with him to help ensure that U.S. concerns are considered in Saudi decisionmaking.

Simon Henderson is Baker fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Program, from which this article is adapted.


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