By Joseph A. Kéchichian
New Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz
Even before the Saudi Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz was laid to rest in Makkah, leading Al Saud family members recognised they had a succession problem.
To remedy shortcomings associated with a handful of senior princes settling on a successor, King Abdallah Bin Abdul Aziz introduced a specific mechanism in 2007 by creating an Allegiance Commission whose writ was to oversee selections through a carefully laid out voting procedure.
Even if untested, the device was a novelty, and geared to avoid potential crises although few anticipated the death of two heirs over the course of a year.
How Riyadh planned to activate the Allegiance Commission to “elect” a new Crown Prince, and whether its 34 current members [a 35th seat was vacant] would quickly settle on Defence Minister Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, were largely theoretical questions.
More important than this immediate appointment was the pace of political reforms that confronted Saudi Arabia that, in the aftermath of various uprisings throughout the Arab World, highlighted the necessity for urgent actions.
Interestingly, and as recently as mid-2005, Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz called on Riyadh to “start with political reform, that is introducing a new basic stature (of government), or what is known in the West as a constitution.
”Prince Talal emphasised that the proposed constitution would be tantamount to “a social covenant between ruler and ruled, compatible with known constants in Saudi Arabia in terms of religion and genuine traditions.”
Five years earlier, this prominent Al Saud had cautioned that the family ought to “find a smooth way to pass the monarchy to the next generation, or face a power struggle after the era of old royals passes.”
Prince Talal, who once was the leader of the “Free Princes” movement — that called for democratic changes in the early 1960s — returned home after several years in exile to play a vital legitimiding role.
More recently, he saw the need to further modernize the kingdom, including giving women additional rights. In particular, he articulated the voices of those who wanted to carefully plan the passing of the torch to the next generation because, he clarified more than once, the dilemma that faced the Al Saud was with the grandsons. Thus, not only was it critical to ensure smooth successions, it was essential to prepare a new generation that would be called upon to assume responsibilities.
It was with such goals in mind that Prince Talal proposed to form a political party in Saudi Arabia in September 2007, a proposal that could not have been made without the monarch’s tacit approval. This was a calculated declaration by a trusted brother who had his pulse on the “state-of-the-family” and who sincerely believed that political reforms were in the best interests of the ruling establishment.
Although no political parties were authorised, the monarch recognised that genuine sociopolitical reforms were long overdue, and seemed to have worked in earnest with senior officials to address them. Still, the ultimate challenge for Riyadh was whether the Al Saud were able to keep up with the reformist ruler, since reorganizations by themselves were not enough.
Rather, as societies equipped themselves with the wherewithal to self-govern, and trained legal minds to look after their interests—both those of the general public as well as of each individual — it behooved the ruling establishment to correctly interpret their “will to power.”
King Abdullah’s ultimate challenge was to affirm his own resolve as well as acculturate putative successors to appreciate the limits of power. This was critical as he forged ahead with inclusive political institutions that added value to citizens at large — not easy propositions under the best of circumstances, but certainly within the realm of the possible in Riyadh — because of the monarch’s foresight and dedication.
Seven years into his rule, King Abdullah demonstrated a knack for significant changes, first with his 2007 Allegiance Law of Succession and, more recently, with the appointment of two crown princes. He was now confronted with yet a third such designation although chances were excellent that he would rely on the Allegiance Commission to share this immense burden.
Remarkably, the monarch was conscious that none of these steps ought to upset the 1744 alliance between the Al Saud and the Al Shaikh, which formed the cornerstone of the kingdom’s legitimacy, and which was seldom subjected to any cataclysmic tests.
Rather, the Saudi ruler intended to strengthen that critical alliance by interjecting fresh reforms, not to eliminate any party or group, but to open the doors for gradual transformations required by time.
These were clear signs of inherent skills to refine his “will to power,” which required serious attention to political reforms, and which were nearly impossible to postpone.
-This commentary was published first in The GULF NEWS on 19/06/2012