Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has left the country for the US to undergo medical tests. A frail Crown Prince Sultan hurriedly returned from abroad to govern the world's largest oil exporter, after several months of receiving treatment for cancer.


The king will be seeking treatment after a blood clot complicated a slipped spinal disc, the state news agency SPA said. It did not say when Abdullah would be back.


With both Abdullah and Sultan in their 80s, speculation arose that conservative Interior Minister Prince Nayef, at a relatively youthful 76, could take over running the affairs of state some time in the near future.


In a related development, the King has stepped down as head of the country’s National Guard and transferred the influential position to his son, Prince Mitab.


November 22, 2010



Analysis and Forecast: Increasing Risk


The King’s departure and the return of the Crown Prince raise concern even further about the ability of the King to continue to rule for much longer. The King’s front-line successors are his elderly brothers Sultan, Nayef and Salman, all of whom in their late 70’s or early 80’s, and suffering from various illnesses. Sultan, the Crown Prince, is thought to be terminally ill. Nayef, the interior minister, is not popular in the country and as the leader of the “traditionalist camp” in the Kingdom, may reverse the reforms that have started by Abdullah. Even if one or all of the elder princes do succeed, their succession is likely to be short, paving the way for the second generation of princes.


The appointment of Prince Mitab very shortly before Abdullah’s departure, though not unexpected, is unusual in that it came very shortly before the King left for treatment. This is a sign that second generation princes are taking positions within the government structure, in anticipation of a potential power struggle.


The combination of events indicate that Saudi will expect a power struggle that will not only include the first generation sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz, but will for the first time include potential candidates from among the second generation, many of who are fierce rivals. This threatens not only the pace of reforms in the kingdom, but more seriously the stability of the kingdom as traditionalist and reformist camps start aligning themselves.