The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

New Saudi succession rules: there's a regime that has it together

As my friend Hugh Miles notes in this Telegraph piece, something of a landmark constitutional change has taken place in Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia has significantly reduced the powers of its absolute monarchy by quietly removing the king's authority to choose his own successor.

This landmark constitutional reform, enacted by royal order last October but only disclosed this week, fundamentally changes the way the desert kingdom – which controls 25 per cent of the world's oil – is governed.

Until now, the king alone has selected his successor, known as the crown prince, from among the sons and grandsons of King Abdul-Aziz, the founding leader of Saudi Arabia, better known as Ibn Saud.

In future, a committee consisting of senior members of the royal family, called the Bay'ah Council, will vote for the crown prince from three candidates named by the king.

The council is empowered to reject the king's choice and can even impose a crown prince against the monarch's will. It can also declare the king or crown prince incapable of ruling.
The nitty gritty of the changes can be found here and an explanation by Prince Turki al-Faisal was delivered at St. Antony's College last week.

What's interesting about this is that there now seems a clear succession mechanism -- one of course that is still extremely restricted and undemocratic, but that has the advantage of being clear. Contrast that with the utter confusion over Egypt's own succession system -- the refusal of President Mubarak to appoint a vice-president in 25 years and the uncertainty about whether Gamal Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, or someone else altogether will succeed Mubarak.

I usually hate to praise the Saudis, but here as in so many other respects, they're doing things a lot more professionally than the Egyptians. Just consider how Saudi Arabia has completely eclipsed Egypt as a regional mediator, and how it actually seems to have a foreign policy of its own. There's been much grumbling about this in the Egyptian press lately. Salama Ahmed Salama, one of the most respected establishment columnists, recently noted in a column on Iran that:

During the Cold War, the Arabs were not the sheep blindly following US policy that they have become. They developed independent foreign policies that were based on Arab interests. Today, the Arabs' problems are growing and reveal an total inability to manage their internal problems. The Arabs are in such an impasse that they are accusing Iran of having expansionist ambitions.

. . .

Arab policies, notably the foreign policy of Egypt, seems to be magnetically attracted to the US. This is evident from the confusion of Egyptian diplomacy. [Egypt] accused Iran of being behind the murder of its ambassador, Ehab al-Sherif, in Baghdad. Then, it denied that it had made these accusations only to later withdraw that denial -- even though it is obvious that it was Sunni followers of al-Zarqawi who were behind the assassination.
The rest of the column (from about a week ago) went on to suggest that closer Arab relations with Iran would be positive, if only to shake off the "vicious circle of American hegemony over the region." But even if there were criticism of Arab states, it was really aimed at Egypt. One only needs to take at the recent Saudi initiatives to deal directly with the Iranians to see that Saudi policy is a lot more independent. The conclusion: Saudi may be a pretty twisted country, but its regime has its act together. You can't really say that about Egypt.

I was talking about this phenomenon with an Egyptian friend a couple of nights ago and he despaired: before the 1952 Free Officers' coup, he said, Egypt was a country with money and clout. By 1969 Nasser had spent it all. We've been beggars ever since.