May 1, 2007

Saudi Style Kremlinology in Practice

Interpreting minuscule movements in the political geography of Saudi Arabia's closed system of government is a favorite parlor game among journalists, diplomats and businessmen, as well as the ambitious hoping for appointments to state bodies.

But a ripple of excitement has shifted the sands in recent months with indications that Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, the governor of Riyadh and half-brother of King Abdullah, is positioning himself as second-in-line to the throne.

Bear in mind that a rumor could take years to come to fruition in the absolute monarchy, governed by Saudi princes in their 70s and 80s with neither an elected parliament nor political parties.

King Fahd was for years predicted to be at death's door before he died in 2005.

"This Saudi-style Kremlinology is a popular pastime, and plenty of people can make educated guesses or swap rumors," one Western diplomat commented wryly. "But for my money it's a waste of effort to engage in it."

In a recent example, media speculation was rife over a March cabinet reshuffle that was to have seen the exit of Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi.

When the "reshuffle" came, not only did both men retain their posts, but the entire cabinet was simply reinstated -- apparently for another four years -- without any changes at all. ...

Abdullah's designated heir is Prince Sultan, born around 1926. But Abdullah took steps in October to ensure consensus among an inner circle of royals, including younger princes, on who would follow Prince Sultan by setting up a new succession committee.

With no clearly defined rules on the succession, analysts say candidates must embark on what amounts to an undeclared public and private campaign to prove they have the stature to head the family that leads the nation bearing their name.

Some figures in the public sphere already stand out, including Interior Minister Prince Nayef and younger princes such as billionaire businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and Sultan's sons Prince Bandar -- who has been conducting Saudi shuttle diplomacy in the region -- and military commander Prince Khaled.

Several senior European diplomats are unequivocal.

"There is only one serious candidate and that is Salman," one said. "He is very able, speaks without notes, can use language that can sound appealing to Western liberal ears. He enjoys government. I can't believe Salman will not be king."

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