LONDON The Saudi prince seen as most likely to accede may in office prove less conservative than his public image suggests, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, which offer rare insights into the succession debate inside America's ally and leading oil supplier.
The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by Reuters, run a close commentary on the rules and candidates to succeed King Abdullah, around 87, on the assumption that the current Crown Prince, who is slightly younger and also has health problems, would not remain king for long even if he takes the throne. The cables pre-date the king's latest publicized illness.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef, around 76, is "currently best-placed as a Crown Prince-in-waiting" according to an October 2009 cable. He is widely seen as more of a social and religious traditionalist than the king, whose efforts at reform have included education, the judiciary and creating a modern state by trying to lessen the grip of clerics on society, although their impetus has waned with his health problems.
A March 2009 cable on Nayef's promotion to second deputy prime minister points out that Nayef "is often said to be a strong Arab nationalist suspicious of ties with the U.S.," but it goes on to say that the U.S. government "has an excellent and expanding institutional relationship with the Ministry of Interior," which it could not have without Nayef's "full support."
Nayef's appointment as second deputy -- a traditional prelude to possibly becoming crown prince -- was portrayed at the time to U.S. diplomats as a purely administrative move to ensure continuity while King Abdullah travelled out of the country, but the cable also cites one embassy contact as saying "100 percent there was a deal."
Nayef raised eyebrows abroad after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States when he denied Saudis were among the hijackers, suggested Jews instead were behind the attacks, and held up cooperation with Western security bodies. He has backed the religious police who roam the streets to make sure unrelated men and women do not mix and shops close during prayer times.
The cable says he has always been somewhat of an enigma, but "his actions do not support the theory that he is a reactionary or actively working against the king.
"While Nayef is widely seen as a conservative, this is not surprising for a minister whose main preoccupation is maintaining law and order," the cable says, adding: "Most observers viewed then-Crown Prince Abdullah as much more conservative and reactionary than he has proven to be as king."
The cable argues Nayef may be more likely to prove "a pragmatist who eschews ideology, and who has supported the king's efforts to combat both terrorism and radical ideologies." Since becoming second deputy prime minister, Nayef has expanded his power base beyond security, touching other areas such as inflation or foreign policy.
JOCKEYING FOR POWER
A series of cables over years tracks the tensions and jockeying for power among Saudi princes: "The Al Saud are a political party as well as a family. As with any political party, there are always internal rivalries and policy disputes," according to a cable from February 2007, which details how Crown Prince Sultan shifted from an apparently antagonistic relationship with the king to become a supporter of his, reportedly telling his brothers that challenging the king was a "red line" he would not cross.
That despatch concluded that "intra-family conflict has been, and will remain, the greatest potential threat to regime stability in Saudi Arabia."
More recent cables keep the focus steadily on Saudi Arabia's succession rules, which were changed in 2006 to create an Allegiance Council comprised of more than 30 male sons and grandson of Abdul-Aziz, who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932.
In the past, succession lines had mostly been dictated by seniority. But the council can reject the king's choice for crown prince and propose its own. It can also declare the king incapacitated, in what was seen as a response to the ineffectiveness of the kingdom's informal, secretive ways and to increasing competition among the branches of the royal family.
The cables present the new system as a welcome framework to bridge generations.
"Though often cast as one of King Abdullah's reforms, the Allegiance Commission established in 2006 actually codifies the family's traditional practices for choosing successors, with several refinements to address problems such as incapacitation of either King or Crown Prince," says the cable from October 2009. Between the king's youngest son and the next generation "lies a chasm of uncertainty that the Allegiance Commission is designed to bridge," the cable says, adding "this mechanism will likely produce successors to Sultan, Nayef and beyond."
Analyzing "probably the world's only system of government by half-brothers," the cable says Saudi Arabia defines itself as a monarchy, but "in practice the sons of Abdul-Aziz have governed through a unique system of collective rule."
The leadership is consensus-based and by nature cautious, conservative, and reactive, it says: "The rank ordering extends to grandsons of Abdul-Aziz, suggesting that birth-order, and not father, establishes the pecking order in the next generation."
Even before the new succession process was formalized, U.S. diplomats believed leadership qualities -- being the most "upright" -- and maternal lineage, not just seniority, played an important role.
A cable dating back to 1995 suggested Prince Mishaal, while older than now-Crown Prince Sultan, was passed over because his mother was non-Saudi, and he had a lackluster public service record and a reputation for arguing with his brothers. Initially upset, Mishaal later accepted this decision and was, in due course, named chair of the Allegiance Council.
A 2007 cable suggested that most princes had accepted the new succession rules, as they give a larger number of royals a shot at the throne.
Around 20 of the founding king's sons are still alive, and the October 2009 cable says it is unlikely that the Allegiance Council would be ignored, since its members constitute the core of the kingdom's collective leadership, and it has the status of the kingdom's other constitutional laws.
"The Commission's 33 male members include 15 of the 16 living sons of the kingdom's founder; and one son of each of the 16 deceased sons with male heirs - and sons of both the current king and crown prince," the cable says, attaching a list. "Nineteen members hold senior government positions, and they comprise, in effect, the Al Saud's managing board of directors."
Besides Nayef, remaining likely candidates among his brothers include Riyadh Governor Salman, born in 1935, royal adviser Abdulelah, (1938) Riyadh Vice Governor Sattam (1942), Vice Interior Minister Ahmed (1942), and the youngest, intelligence chief Muqrin (1945), the cable says, before going into detail on the merits of each. It goes on to speculate that the next generation candidate would likely be drawn from among princes already in senior government positions, naming some.
"The process has been historically impervious to outside interference," the cable adds, but remarks that the new generation of princes, having nearly all studied in the United States, are "therefore favorably disposed" toward America. "Given U.S. equities in Saudi Arabia, our primary concern in the short term will be supporting a process that ensures stability and broad engagement rather than focusing on individual leaders."
Over the longer term, the cable notes, "stability in Saudi Arabia will depend on the Al Saud's ability to meet and surmount social and economic challenges presented by a growing population and a dangerous neighborhood."
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Lin Noueihed; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)