Saudi king’s trip to US for medical treatment heightens kingdom succession gossip

His majesty, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, aka Khadim al-Haramayn (Servant of the Two Holy Places but his sycophants insist on calling him “Custodian”) is not well. In fact, so unwell that he had to be taken in wheelchair to a fully equipped luxury-fitted 747 Jumbo Jet before being flown to the US on November 22. His majesty is fond of horses but unlike his mercurial colonel cousin of North Africa, who takes a bevy of lady bodyguards, tents and a few camels whose milk he cherishes because it fortifies him better than cow’s milk, did not take any horses onboard. At least we were not informed.

The government-owned and controlled Saudi media reported that he went for treatment for “back ailment” and a blood clot. The latter is serious and could lead to stroke or heart attack. It must have been so serious that his majesty could not be treated in the kingdom that never fails to boast about its health services or medical facilities but even at 87, his majesty does not trust Saudi doctors. Why risk your life in the hands of Saudi doctors that cannot even administer a flu vaccine without rupturing a person’s veins, especially when your time is so close to the end. The king is truly wise!

Amid all the media hype, there was not even a whisper about the plight of Rizana Nafeek, the Sri Lankan maid whose death sentence was upheld by Riyadh’s Supreme Court on September 25, 2010. She was accused of choking an infant while she was feeding him in 2005. Then barely 17, Rizana Nafeek had been in the kingdom only a few months. There was no question of her choking the infant deliberately but as a poor Sri Lankan woman, she is being forced to pay the price with her life. Contrast the lack of concern for her plight with that of Sakina Ashtiani of Iran who faces murder and adultery charges in Iran. The Western media has gone hysterical over her case and even Amnesty International that normally gets its facts right, has been sucked into the maelstrom of accusations against Iran. There are no petitions being circulated against Saudi Arabia, nor are there appeals to king Abdullah to spare her life. Why the difference?

His majesty’s departure from the kingdom was accompanied by another announcement: Crown Prince Sultan’s return from “holiday” abroad on November 21 to take charge, just in case. Sultan, however, was not seen anywhere near the king during his departure from the kingdom although there were many sycophants bowing reverentially and kissing the king’s hand before he left. Muslims showing respect to the Prophet (pbuh) or his companions are immediately accosted by the ubiquitous mutawwas (moral policemen) and such actions are denounced by the Saudi court ‘alims as bid’ah. Bowing to his majesty, however, is permissible. The Saudi ‘alims know which side of the bread to butter.

Sultan has been absent from the kingdom for more than a year. Even for the bone lazy Saudi “royals”, it is unusual to be on holiday for an entire year or more. Sultan has been undergoing treatment for cancer and is in poor health both because of old age –” he is 86 –” and numerous other illnesses. He cannot stand and is incoherent. He has not been seen in public for fear that one look at him would only heighten panic about the kingdom’s future. Sultan’s return to the kingdom is a mere formality to create the pretence of stability but the reality is very different.

In addition to the two men at the top of the totem pole –”A bdullah and Sultan –” the third in line for succession, Prince Nayef, who is second deputy prime minister and long time interior minister, is also quite old. He is 77. In addition to his advanced age –” although the Saudis would protest he is relatively young –” he is also suffering from cancer. It is a pity; Nayef is not likely to become king despite waiting patiently for his brothers to make their exit from this world. Who will go first, Abdullah or Sultan, is largely academic.

The problem facing Saudi Arabia is that the founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud did not pay much attention to how frequently he sired children from his multiple wives. There are 19 surviving sons of Abdul Aziz in addition to Abdullah, almost all in very advanced age. Obviously, the bedouin from Dariyyah was an active man; he was as fond of children, it would seem, as he was of women. And that is at the root of the problem facing the desert kingdom that sits on the world’s largest reserves of oil –” “our oil under their soil”, in the infamous words of Dick Cheney, who himself is waiting a call from above because of his failing heart. The old men of Arabia are at a loss: some are too sick and the rest grossly incompetent. They have spent all their time in luxury, unaware of the rough and tumble of international politics and what is going on around them. Eating, drinking, hunting and procreating are hardly experiences that would qualify them for running a modern state that is situated in a volatile region.

With the top echelon either too old, too sick or both and the rest incompetent, the question of succession looms large. It is further complicated by the fact that if power were to be transferred to one of the sons or grandsons of the current crop of leaders, the question that arises is: which branch of the Saud family will emerge on top?

Some moves have already been made. Before departing for the US, “his majesty” transferred control of the National Guard to his son Mitab. The National Guard comprise bedouin tribesmen in charge of domestic security and are directly answerable to Abdullah. Could this indicate that he is trying to position his own son for the top post regardless of what his other half-brothers may think? Even if he wanted to, in the snake pit of Saudi royal politics where backstabbing and intrigue are rampant, this would be difficult. Abdullah also extended the terms of several top officials for four more years, among them the Saudi ambassador to Washington and the Saudi grand mufti, Shaykh Abdul Aziz Aal al-Shaykh. Was this designed to secure his base among the techocrats, some equally aging, and the clerical establishment that is also extremely influential in the kingdom?

Other changes are also in the offing. Given his extremely poor health, Sultan is likely to relinquish his long-held post of defence minister to his son, Khalid who is currently assistant defence minister and inspector general of military affairs. What could better illustrate the kingdom as a family affair and a personal fiefdom? Khalid is a dunce in military affairs but competence has never been a requirement for holding high office in the desert kingdom. His weak military skills were exposed during the recent Saudi attacks against Yemeni tribesmen. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef sits at his father’s elbow as assistant minister of interior for security affairs. Prince Abdul Aziz, son of the late king Fahd, is state minister and president of the Court of the Presidency of the Cabinet. Soothsayers had told Fahd that if he did not see the face of his son, Abdul Aziz every day, it will bring bad omen and he will die. Fahd could not escape death even after keeping his son glued to him; so much for Saudi voodoo and superstition.

There is another branch of the Saudi clan that has not been dealt with yet: the Faisals. Of the late king Faisal’s children (Faisal was assassinated by one of his nephews in 1975, most people believe at the behest of the Americans), Prince Saud al-Faisal, 69, has been the kingdom’s foreign minister since his father was killed but he is now expected to retire. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease as well as a bad back. It is astonishing how many Saudi royals have bad backs; maybe they should try walking a bit, if that is not too much of an effort.

The foreign minister’s position is expected to stay in the Faisal family and will likely go to Saud’s younger brother Turki al-Faisal who is 65. Prince Turki served for many years as the Saudi intelligence chief until his sudden departure in 2001. Later he served as ambassador to Britain and then had a short stint in Washington where Bandar bin Sultan, his predecessor –” and brother-in-law –” constantly undermined him.

There are three contenders in the running for the post of future king of Saudi Arabia: Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the long-time interior minister, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, currently serving as governor of Makkah, and Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, governor of Riyadh province. While Nayef’s pictures have appeared alongside those of king Abdullah and Prince Sultan in government offices and he has assumed most of the responsibilities of the king, his own failing health may deprive him of the top position. Salman, too, may be out of the race because he also is suffering from cancer. That leaves Khalid bin Faisal to emerge as the future king because he seems to be respected by almost all the factions within the House of Saud.

The joker in the pack, of course, is Bandar bin Sultan who was caught plotting to overthrow King Abdullah. He then disappeared from public view in 2008 and re-surfaced only recently. His sycophants and supporters have claimed Bandar was receiving medical treatment abroad, again allegedly for a bad back (Is it a bad back or AIDS?). His other problem is that he is an alcoholic. Yes, in the “puritanical” kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where you can receive 80 lashes for drinking, members of the royal family can drink to their heart’s content without raising an eyebrow. Do not expect to read this in the New York Times or hear it on CNN or even the Islamophobic Fox News. For those interested in media gossip, Prince Walid bin Talal is a major shareholder in News Corp, the parent company of Fox News. If Muslims have wondered why Fox News is so anti-Muslim, this should provide some pointers.

Bandar has close connections with the US neocons and Zionists but as the son of a concubine, it may be virtually impossible for him to get the top spot because pedigree counts in the desert kingdom. But he cannot be dismissed completely because of his backers in Washington that want their yes-man in Riyadh. Even without getting the top position, he will continue to influence decision-making because of Saudi Arabia’s total dependence, nay subservience, to the US. The House of Saud survives on the throne, thanks to US support. Without it, the House crumbles like a sand castle.