FP_ART Saudi Arabia's King Fahd is nearing his last days. His successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, has held the reins since 1995. Yet Fahd’s recent hospitalization put the kingdom’s security forces on high alert and drove up oil prices. What gives? FP asked veteran Saudi watcher F. Gregory Gause about succession in the House of Saud, explosive allegations in a recently published U.S. book, and political developments in the kingdom.
FOREIGN POLICY: When King Fahd dies, what will change?
F. Gregory Gause: Not much. Crown Prince Abdullah will become king, and [he] will have a bit more institutional power with the title. The most important power he will have is the ability to name a crown prince. Given the politics in the family right now, it is almost inevitable that he will select Defense Minister Prince Sultan to be next in line. That will maintain a family balance, which will basically recreate the situation that the kingdom is in today.
FP: Some hope Abdullahs reformist impulses will be strengthened when he obtains the institutional powers of king. Do you share that view?
FG: Its not so much the office as it is the person. King Faisal was a powerful king who was a dominant force. But King Saud, who preceded Faisal, and King Khalid were more like firsts among equals. I dont see Abdullah as having the clout to dictate policy the way Faisal did.
Abdullah is a very cautious guy. He does have a reformist agenda, but it is hemmed in personally by his own caution. And then there are the political dynamics of the family. The Saudis are making moves in what we in the West would consider the direction of reform. But the process is slow, and I dont think Abdullah being king is going to change the pace.
FP: Crown Prince Abdullah is 81, so its hard to imagine him being king for very long. Whats your assessment of Prince Sultan?
FG: Prince Sultan is 76, so hes almost the same age. Hes presided over the Defense and Aviation Ministry since 1963. Thats [more than] 40 years at Saudi Arabias largest and most capitalintensive ministry. He has built the Saudi military and overseen much of the money that has gone through the Saudi system, and that gives him a certain amount of power. He has a reputation for being relatively proAmerican, but hes not reflexively proAmerican the way King Fahd was. Fahds impulse is to go with the United States on major foreignpolicy issues.
FP: Did it strike you as unusual that security forces were put on high alert when King Fahd was recently hospitalized?
FG: That is a somewhat disturbing signal. You would think there wouldnt be the need to mobilize security forces for something that has been considered [likely] for a number of years. Thats a sign that maybe not everything is 100 percent certain. We will have to wait and see, when the king does pass away, if that was a false signal or if that there is in fact real uncertainty. If I were betting on this, Id still put my money on a smooth transition.
FP: What can the Saudis do to cut oil prices, and what are they doing?
FG: Theres not much more they can do in the short term because theyre producing near their maximum capacity. The oil minister announced a few months ago that, by 2009, they will expand capacity by 2 millions barrels a day to 12 million. The Saudis havent increased net capacity for around 20 years, so its good that they are increasing it. But if you consider the rise in demand from South and East Asia, you wonder if 2 million barrels a day over the next four years will be enough to meet demand, given that there doesnt seem to be a whole lot of new oil coming onto the market.
FP: Is there any merit to Gerald Posners allegation, made in his book Secrets of the Kingdom, that Saudi Arabia has rigged its oil infrastructure with an elaborate set of dirty bombs to ensure that the worlds oil supply is tied to the fate of the Saud family?
FG: I have no doubt that the Saudis have been thinking about contingencies involving serious internal threats. I understand the logic of tying the familys fate to the oil supply, but Im not convinced by Posner. His previous work on Saudi Arabia isnt particularly well sourced. It always seems to be an intelligence source who feeds Posner the information and we dont know what kind of games these sources are playing. We know who Deep Throat is now, but we dont know who Posners sources are. I cant come right out and say that its false and stupid and disprove it. But Im not buying it yet.
On his allegations that members of the Saudi royal family were tied to the 9/11 terrorist plot, the fact that Posner could find this out while the 9/11 Commission could not leads me to question Posners sources.
FP: Recently the Saudi government sentenced three intellectuals to long prison sentences for advocating constitutional monarchy. What does this say about reform in the kingdom?
FG: Its certainly a step away from any kind of reform agenda. These three guys have no major following, represent no movement, and present no threat to anybody in the royal family. Their call for constitutional monarchy is not unprecedented. They are no threat, so why the harsh reaction unless a member of the royal familyprobably the interior ministerfelt insulted? Thats almost the definition of arbitrary government.
At the same time, the Wahhabi political movement flouted the electoral code for municipal elections held earlier this year. They ran a ticket of candidates, which was prohibitedcandidates were supposed to run as individuals. Those tickets won most of the seats in major cities, and they were never punished. The government said, OK, thats fine.
If Saudi Arabia wants to proceed down a path toward more political participation, it must level the playing field. It has to allow those outside the religious establishment to organize, present their ideas, and build political movements. If they dont do that, the religious types will dominate any kind of participatory politics. And thats not good for the Saudis and certainly not good for U.S. interests.