The Devil You Think You Know; Saudi Royals May Have Put a Good Face on the Succession. but Let's Not Delude Ourselves

By Baer, Robert | Newsweek International, August 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Devil You Think You Know; Saudi Royals May Have Put a Good Face on the Succession. but Let's Not Delude Ourselves


Baer, Robert, Newsweek International


Byline: Robert Baer (Baer, a former CIA officer, is author of "Sleeping With the Devil.")

Ten days ago, in Damascus, I sat down with a Syrian official I've known for years and asked the question on everyone's mind. What's with the jihadists crossing Syria's border into Iraq? There is no way anyone can control a long border like that, he said, sounding the official line. Then he dropped a bombshell. Of 1,200 suspected suicide bombers arrested by Syrian authorities since the beginning of the war in 2003, 85 percent have been Saudis.

Eighty-five percent? This can't be good. Saudi Arabia sits on 25 percent of the world's proven oil reserves. It is the only producer with enough spare capacity to stabilize oil markets during crises. So what if these jihadists crossing from Syria into Iraq decide, sooner or later, to take their war back home, perhaps by attacking the kingdom's oil infrastructure in the same way the Iraqi resistance is doing in Iraq? That's a scenario that keeps Washington awake at night.

Fine, last week's royal succession went smoothly. Fahd died, his half brother Abdullah ascended the throne and Sultan, the Defense minister and Fahd's full brother, became crown prince. Saudis all across the kingdom flocked to swear allegiance to their new king. Oil markets barely moved, thanks largely to presumptions about Abdullah's good intentions. He has proved himself a pragmatic reformer over the past decade, managing the kingdom in the incapacitated Fahd's name, moving against royals' corruption and setting up this year's municipal elections--a genuine democratic step. Among commoners at home, he is the most popular prince. Abroad, he's liked because he does not hesitate to goose Saudi production when needed.

But there's a hitch. Like Abdullah himself, at 81, the senior princes are getting old. Who, then, comes next? Abdullah's accession went smoothly partly because he agreed to keep Fahd's full brothers, the so-called Sudeiris, in line to succeed him. Foremost among the contenders is Abd al-Majid, the governor of Mecca and a half brother of Fahd and Abdullah, now in his 50s. Sultan would like to groom his own son Khalid, the assistant minister of Defense and a commander during the first gulf war, for inclusion in the line of succession. But Khalid carries a lot of baggage--among them charges of gross corruption--and is not popular with other senior princes. Saud Al-Faisal, the foreign minister, and his brother Turki Al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief and ambassador designate to Washington, have also been considered as potential compromise candidates. Neither is thought to be acceptable to the family, however, while Prince Bandar bin Sultan, another son of Sultan and until recently the U. …

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