Prince Mish'al bin Abd al-Aziz, the Chairman of Allegiance-Pledge Commission, arrived in Boston on June 26, accompanied by sons Bandar, Saud, and grandson Saud bin Faysal, coming from Paris. He had arrived there only three weeks before with his family for holiday. The official reason given for the unscheduled trip was to undergo medical tests. Yet this is only the latest development in a continuing downward spiral, as his health seemingly worsens to the point where he is out of the country almost as much as he is at home.
In late April, he returned from Beirut, where he had spent time, according to the official statement, in recovery and recuperation. His son Abd al-Aziz and grandson Saud bin Faysal were at his side there the entire length of his stay. This comes only months after his return from a fairly extended convalescence in Lebanon, in November. Prior to that, in October, he had been rushed to hospital in Geneva, apparently having suffered a stroke. Prince Salman visited Mish'al there, a measure of the concern among the royals, along with Mish'al's sons and other members of the extended family.
Mish'al is far more than simply a figurehead, nor is he just a fond reminder of the senior royal's connection to the Kingdom's founder Ibn Saud.
Though he has held no official position for decades, and devoted himself to business interests and camel racing and breeding, he occupies a key spot in the family heirarchy. He holds almost equal seniority to the king and crown prince, a fact which accords him a respect bordering on awe among the junior royals. His seeming impartiality in family politics (though he is known to incline towards Abdallah), made him the perfect choice to oversee the succession process. The king appointed him Chairman of the Bay'ah Commission in December 2007, a key role which will give him unprecedented influence in the decision-making process, and one which it is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of anyone else managing. The succession dynamic is a minefield which only the most experienced and politic of the senior royals could possibly undertake, given the suspicion that would surround any action which would inevitably favor one faction over another. Even though it is likely that the succession issue has already been decided by mutual agreement among the key players, mustering the necessary consensus to manage the process successfully would require not only a commanding presence, but a diplomacy and tact which others have clearly not demonstrated. Were Mish'al unable to participate, the rivalry among competing factions could easily spin out of control.
There are increasing indications that senior members of the family are moving forward to press the claims of their sons, having lost hope of coming to power themselves. Key roles in powerful ministries such as Defense and Interior are at stake, and the extended network that comes with these portfolios would secure a family faction a potentially unassailable power base from which to launch a challenge in the future.
Salman bin Abd al-Aziz for many years held the role of unofficial family arbiter, but his health was been waning as well, and he has a vested interest in promoting his own offspring, as well as members of his al-Sudayri cousins. In a sense, Mish'al has now taken on the role, by virtue of his seniority and gravitas. His passing, or prolonged absence from the scene, could have a potentially destabilizing effect on royal family affairs.