By Gil Elan
As of this writing (Jan. 27) President Obama is leading a delegation of some 30 politicians, advisors, business leaders, etc. on a short condolence visit to Saudi Arabia to honor the late King Abdullah and meet the new King Salman. Should be simple, dignified and straightforward, right? I’m sure that that’s the way this highly choreographed event will look on TV. But…
The problem is that in the discordant and conflicted House of Saud, where the real battle of succession and influence has only started, the traditional declaration, “The king is dead, long live the king” is somewhat inaccurate.
According to many Middle East experts with ties to the Royal Family, King Salman is suffering from advanced stages of dementia. That is why King Abdullah, shortly before he died, appointed his younger half-brother Prince Mukrin to the position of “Deputy Crown Prince.” When Salman became king the “deputy” was dropped from Mukrin’s title.
But according to the latest reports — King Salman (obviously being handled by family members close to him) has already started the process of removing Mukrin and other Abdullah appointees in favor of his own sons and grandsons. This is understandable, sort of, since it brings the royal bloodline back to the “full” Sudeiri faction of the family, which was cut off when Abdullah became king. Neither he nor Mukrin are sons of Hassa al-Sudairi (hence the “half-brother” moniker). Hassa was the favorite of the 22 legal wives of the Kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, and the mother of six of the last 7 kings. Salman is the last of the “Sudairi Seven.”
King Abdulaziz had 36 sons that survived to adulthood and numerous daughters (though the exact number was never logged…). The fact that the “Sudairi Seven,” thanks to their powerful mother and her family, held on to the centers of power (and extreme wealth) never sat well with the other princes and their clans. Infighting has always been an issue. According to observers, the calm surface of national mourning is hiding a bubbling undercurrent of factional and clan regrouping, deals, threats and agreements that will continue for some time.
Israel will be monitoring these developments. It is no longer a secret that for some years now Israel and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed an excellent relationship based on common regional interests (peace process) and threats (Iran). The feeling in Israel is that regardless of which clan or faction eventually takes over or retains the reins of power, there is no reason to believe that these mutually beneficial ties will change any time in the near future.
As for relations with the U.S., which are very strained right now, that would depend on three issues:
1. The U.S. standing by its “red line” commitment to stop Iran’s nukes.
2. The U.S. supporting the Asisi regime in Egypt.
3. Which faction or clan actually ends up in power, since various family factions have been developing independent relations with Russia, China, and even extreme Islamist groups, particularly al-Qaida, Taliban, Hamas and ISIS.
We will certainly be watching, and analyzing exactly who was in the room when President Obama met with Salman Tuesday, Jan. 27, in what order they were introduced and who actually spoke.
Remember, in the Arab tradition, symbolism and gestures can speak louder than words.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is President and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at: www.swjc.org. DISCLAIMER: Opinions are the writer’s, and do not represent SWJC directors, officers or members.