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Feature Article
King Abdallah's Hospitalization - Succession Endgame? (Page: 2)
crisis management, or an unfolding plan?

Previously, the king handed his son Miti'ib full control of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the elite Bedouin corps that handles domestic security as a counterweight to the Army. Mit'ib has been Deputy Commander since 2001, though he has been in effective control of day-to-day operations for much longer. At the same time, Badr bin Abd al-Aziz, deputy chief since 1968, stepped down. Badr, one of the most senior royals, never had a high public profile, and this seemingly puts him out of the picture for good. He never exerted a large amount of executive control over the Guard, though his influence there over the years should not be underestimated.

The devolvement of power to Mit'ib is significant, since Abdallah has held control of SANG since 1962. Like Sultan's five-decade reign as head of the Defense Ministry, this comprised the centre of gravity of the king's power base. The National Guard is made of Saudi tribes who consequently owe their allegiance to Abdallah, and he has spent an enormous amount of time over the years cultivating this relationship. As the son of a member of the Shammar tribe (his mother Fahda was the daughter of Shaykh al-Asi Shurayim), his affinity for the tribal element came naturally, and he was often viewed in a lesser light because of this, by those who considered it more fashionable to be seen with the technocrats. Abdallah was accustomed to spending long sojourns in the desert with the tribes, not only to strengthen these connections, but because he felt a genuine bond.

Control of the Guard came naturally to him, and seemed a perfect fit, so talk of his giving up this responsibility once he came to the throne was never taken too seriously. Without the Guard as a counterweight to Sultan's management of Defence, Abdallah would have been at a serious disadvantage. Having his son Mit'ib run SANG was the perfect arrangement, for Mit'ib was an extremely capable officer who oversaw a vast expansion in the Guard's capabilities, though not quite rivalling that of the Army.

Of equal symbolic weight is the handing over to Nayif of responsibility for overseeing Hajj. The king styles himself Custodian of the Two Holy Places, and the royal family's role as guardian of Islam's holiest cities underlies claims to Al Saud rule. For this reason, the decision to elevate Nayif to this role, albeit temporarily, is charged with meaning. Even if practically speaking the king felt physically unable to oversee all the preparations, activities and social events this would have involved, it is a significant step in devolvement of power to the third-in-line.

Taken all together, it would be all too easy to see an attempt at crisis management, with ad hoc solutions in reponse to a sudden health scare. However, the larger picture cannot be lost sight of. Nayif's role has been expanding for some time, and it seems all but certain that he will be next to take the reigns. This has in fact been provided for since the time the Allegiance (Bay'ah) Commission was proposed by the king. It seemed then that Abdallah had effectively shut out the al-Sudayri branch from an eventual succession, but power dynamics being what they are, the support for this was never there without the compromise of Nayif's succession being secured before the Bay'ah Commission ever did its work. Nayif's coming to power, though not an outcome the king wanted, was a necessary concession by Abdallah to implement the Bay'ah, and assure that the al-Sudayri, in the long run, did not monopolize power. Whatever the result of Abdallah's recent health issues, nothing transpiring has not been in the works for years. The only unknown is whether, as the pace of events accelerate, and the pieces of the puzzle come together somewhat faster anticipated, the other senior princes will use the opportunity to rush to place their own sons and allies in positions of influence, and be well placed before the next and inevitable succession.

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