King Fahd of Saudi Arabia is 84 and confined to a wheelchair. Some magazines have estimated his wealth at $28 billion. He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and crippling orthopaedic problems. According to a former American ambassador to the desert kingdom, ‘His mind is vacant; he spends his time watching cartoons on television – especially Mickey Mouse and Road Runner.’
Prince Abdallah, Fahd’s half-brother and heir apparent, is 82 and in poor health. In relative terms, his fortune of $4 billion does not compare with the wealth of his elder his brother. He’s had three bypass operations. A semi-literate with a heavy stutter, a recent trip to the US found him so shaky President Bush had to hold his hand to steady him in front of television cameras. The first question is whether Abdallah is mentally or physically fit enough to become King. Another is whether his family or the United States, both with de facto veto powers, will consent to his elevation.
Second in line to the Saudi throne, Defence Minister Prince Sultan, 81, is suffering from cancer. An obese, ungainly man, he is best known for elevating gun running to cocktail party gossip and making super arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi a household name. Because he has the final right of approval on every armament procurement deal made by his country, he is the world’s leading intermedler (skimmer), the man who gets a commission regardless of who wins a contract. However, his involvement in many bad investment schemes have left him with little, an estimated $5 billion.
These are the three men running Saudi Arabia; the world’s top oil exporter and home of Islam’s holiest shrines of Mecca and Medina. Their father had so many children, 49 boys and over 60 girls, he didn’t have enough time to give them individual attention and most followed their mothers. Fahd, Abdallah and Sultan have 11 years of bad education between them. Along with their cousins, they attended the Princes School where they couldn’t be prodded or punished. Whatever record is available indicates that they devoted little time to learning.
Ever since Fahd became King in 1982, and though they disagree on the internal, regional and international policies their country should follow, the three have mismanaged a country which sits atop 25 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and claims to speak for over a billion people. A de facto power sharing system defines Fahd’s , Abdallah’s and Sultan’s spheres of influence. Fahd is King and supreme, Abdallah’s simplicity has endeared him to his country’s Bedouin and some religious leaders and Sultan is the natural darling of foreign contractors.
Until now, the fierce jealousies and competition between them over spheres of influence have been kept under control by their desire to survive against the rising and increasingly violent demands of their people. For example, Abdallah is used to placate the Bedouin and speak to the religious ulemas, Fahd, seeing himself a charmer, addresses the grievances of women and Sultan is commander in chief of the army, an extension of his Defence Minister portfolio. But for some time, Abdallah and Sultan have differed as to whether the latter can use the army without consulting the others. Of course, they hold the same opinion regarding not allowing the people a voice in deciding their own future and events such as municipal elections are undermined before they take place (women couldn’t vote and the royal family fielded its own candidates). But there are signs the power sharing balancing act is coming to an end.
The most troublesome sign of open family disunity is the refusal of Minister of Interior Prince Nayyef to obey the man running the country in Fahd’s place, the heir apparent Prince Abdallah. Nayyef, one of Fahd’s full six brothers, considers Abdallah unfit to become king and wants him replaced. Ignoring Abdallah is also true of Prince Salman, another of Fahd’s full brothers and de facto head of the family council. If more support their disobedience then a confrontation between the various family branches may develop the moment Fahd dies.
Meanwhile, Abdallah’s response to being ignored has been to expand the National Guard, the Bedouin security force which he heads. Now numbering 50,000 people and, on Abdallah’s orders equipped with tanks and helicopters, it is used as a personal powerbase and a competitor for the army. The two forces parade on different occasions and there is no integration or co-ordination between them regarding the hardware they use.Moreover, Abdallah enjoys the support of most of his other half-brothers. Within the younger generation, Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal and his brothers are reported in his camp.
Also, there are smaller but still telling signs of disagreement between the immediate families of the three leaders of Al Saud. Some have surfaced since Fahd’s ten-year-old incapacitation and the absence of the voice ‘of the arbiter of all things.’ Fahd’s youngest and favourite son, Prince Abdel Aziz, made advisor with ministerial rank to his father at the age of 23, six years ago, has forced himself as a partner on his uncle the minister of defence and insists on sharing in armament commissions. This situation has created tensions which weaken the solidity of the façade of unity.
Nor is the outside world oblivious to the importance of the succession contest. Until recently the U.S. has always felt safer with the Sudeiri group but was unsure about the wisdom of bypassing Abdallah. Nowadays tampering with the succession line-up is no longer an issue. America wants an acceptable counterweight to Osama bin Laden, and for the first time, it could be a new government.
The country Fahd, Abdallah and Sultan run exercises an influence through its oil reserves and religious position. Until the recent increase in the price of oil, except for two years, the country ran a deficit from 1984 until 2004. This resulted in a sharp decrease in the education and health budgets and the number of unemployed is over 20 per cent of the work force. But the budgets of the royal family and ministry of defence increased. Religiously, the countries middle position, fundamentalist at home and pro-West in its foreign policy, is under attack by militants and moderates. This is behind the confusing picture the country projects; it swings from seeming pro-West to wanting to appease the Islamists.
Corrupt from the top down, the family’s budget is taken, skimmed, from oil receipts before they become national income. Estimates put it at around $6 billion per year. On occasions, when there isn’t enough money for direct cash payments to family members, the king gives them oil to sell on the open market, what is called “princely allocations”. However they come by it, much of the money received by the royals is wasted in casinos, on blondes, palaces with gold fittings and fixtures and I know of no single male member who has been married less than three times.
According to the Washington Institute and others in 1990 and 1991 armament procurement amounted to more than 92 per cent of the oil income. A great deal of the defence expenditure is on electronic hardware the Saudis cannot master. At one point the country had more planes than pilots. During the first Gulf War, 400 military trucks went missing. Members of the royal family rented land to American forces which came to their country to defend them. Much of the land was in the public domain until a day or two before the Americans arrived.
In addition to squandering their country’s wealth on unproductive personal pursuits and arms they can’t use, the policies of Fahd and his brothers are responsible for the acceleration in the spread of militant Islam. Fahd, lazy and irreverent, ended his family’s alliance with the Wahabi religious hierarchy by refusing to share power with it. What Fahd wanted, for his family to be the source of religious guidance, was rejected out of hand by the religious ulemas. The people were left without recourse to a religious group. Militant Islamists filled the vacuum.
Judged by how Saudi Arabia is run, its influence the Arab and Muslim worlds and the knock-on effects of their actions on the rest of the globe, Fahd, Abdallah and Sultan resemble leading actors in a major tragedy. But judging them by their individual performances shows how unequipped they are for their roles. The tragedy becomes farce. Simply stated, none of them has the wherewithal to run a country, part of one or even a troupe of boy scouts. All three cannot read silently and mumble through whatever documents are presented to them.
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