The Man at the Center: Saudi Crown Prince 'Abdullah
Note to Readers: Because this issue contains a two-page Profile, Listening Post does not appear in this issue.
At a moment when US-Saudi relations appear to be somewhat rocky (See Page One), no figure in the Kingdom is likely to play a more decisive role than the man who is effectively in charge of the day-to-day running of the country, Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz. But over the years, Crown Prince Abdullah has often been misunderstood by American observers, in part because he is not as Westernized in manner as King Fahd (now debilitated) or Defense Minister Prince Sultan. He is sometimes even considered "anti-American" because of his strong criticisms of US policy on Israel and Palestine, but he is also the man who entrusted his beloved National Guard to the United States Army for modernization. And no other senior prince is as skilled in dealing with the complex interactions of the tribes of eastern Saudi Arabia who provide the fundamental support for the throne, and Abdullah has the added advantage of having a reputation for incorruptibility. Of all the senior princes, he is the one least frequently attacked by Islamist critics of the regime. Like the King, however, Abdullah is in his late 70s (officially born in 1924, he will be 78 this year by that reckoning); when Fahd finally leaves the scene Abdullah may have only a short reign in his own right.
But Abdullah has essentially been running the country albeit not with a completely free hand since early 1996, after Fahd had a stroke; initially the King transferred all powers, but after several weeks in which Abdullah and the other senior princes apparently had a falling out, Fahd resumed some of his powers. Nonetheless the Crown Prince has effectively been regent ever since, and has increasingly represented the Kingdom in travels abroad as well.
As noted, Abdullah was born in 1924, according to his official biography; some earlier reports made it a year or two earlier or later. Like all recent Kings of Saudi Arabia, he was a son of the founder of the Kingdom, King Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud, the man known to the West as "Ibn Saud". The old King had at least 37 sons who survived, and an unknown number of daughters. Abdullah's mother was Fahda bint al-Asi Al Shuraim of the powerful Shammar tribe, and she bore King Abd al-Aziz only the one son, along with two daughters. Abdullah thus does not have full brothers, and is not one of the powerful "Sudairi seven" brothers who include King Fahd, Prince Sultan, Interior Minister Prince Nayef and four others, all sons of one mother, Hassa bint Sudairi.
Like most princes of his generation, Abdullah was educated traditionally by senior Islamic ulama'; he is not known to speak any foreign languages. He still meets regularly with the senior ulama' and late last year warned them against taking positions which might harm the Kingdom and Islam. He has endowed libraries in both Riyadh and Casablanca, and retains a personal interest in Islamic scholarship.
Abdullah, like the late King Khalid, was among the most traditional princes in his love of horsemanship, his knowledge of tribal relations, and his love of the desert. When Khalid was King, one often heard Westerners remark that the then-Crown Prince, Fahd, "really ran the country" while Khalid "goes out and does sword dances with the tribes"; but in fact, keeping up relations with the tribes is precisely how one governs Saudi Arabia. He breeds Arabian horses and founded a Riyadh equestrian club. Abdullah is known for his close relations with the tribes and his love of bedouin traditions; in 1985 he founded and continues to patronize the annual Jenadriyya National Heritage and Cultural Festival, which preserves traditional Saudi culture.
Abdullah's primary function for the past 40 years, however, has been as Commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), the country's military force for domestic protection. Long based on the loyal tribes of the Najd, the Guard has usually been seen as a protection against the regular Armed Forces as well; Abdullah's knowledge of the tribes was surely a factor in his selection as Guard Commander by the late King Faisal in 1963, when Abdullah was in his late 30s. He has retained the post ever since, and some of his sons hold key command positions in the Guard as well. Some expect that one of them may succeed him if he becomes King in his own right and gives up command of the Guard.
In 1975, after the assassination of King Faisal and the accession of Khalid as King and Fahd as Crown Prince, Abdullah was named Second Deputy Prime Minister, in effect positioning him as next in line for the throne after Fahd. When Khalid died in 1982 and Fahd became King, Abdullah accordingly became Crown Prince as well as First Deputy Prime Minister (the King is traditionally his own Prime Minister).
Until Fahd's illness, Abdullah was considerably less well known to most Westerners than were Fahd and Defense Minister Prince Sultan. Abdullah is said to suffer from a slight stutter, and in addition speaks no English, so until he became directly involved with foreign affairs he had less contact with Americans, for example, except for those with National Guard related business. This, and his traditionalist ways and a general sense that he was somewhat ascetic and less worldly than some senior princes, helped create an image of him as "anti-Western" or at least aloof.
In addition, there have been reports that after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, Abdullah opposed the introduction of foreign forces onto the Kingdom's soil. Since the inner debates of the senior princes are not, of course, made public, this cannot be confirmed independently, but is widely believed.
But to those who suspect Abdullah of "anti-American" sentiments, it needs to be repeated that when the time came for modernization of the National Guard which is his most important personal interest he entrusted it to the US military. And a bomb attack on a National Guard facility in Riyadh in 1995 was apparently aimed at that very relationship.
Until Fahd's illness, Abdullah, as noted, did not travel abroad very much, at least outside the Arab world. (He visited Washington in 1976 and again in 1987, relatively infrequent trips for a senior Saudi.) His interests in the Arab world were more deeply based. Because a favorite wife comes from the Syrian Alawite community and was in fact a relative of the wife of Rifat al-Asad, Abdullah developed close ties with the Syrian government of Hafiz al-Asad, for example. Like many senior Saudis he has links to Morocco as well, and frequently expresses pan-Arab or even Arab nationalist sentiments.
When Fahd suffered a stroke in late 1995 he handed over power to Abdullah and appeared to be ready to leave the country and effectively retire, but within a few weeks he officially resumed his duties, apparently because of friction between Abdullah and Prince Sultan. But as Fahd's health has continued to deteriorate, Abdullah has become de facto regent and has increasingly represented the Kingdom at GCC and Arab summits.
Saudi Arabia had quietly supported the Oslo peace process, but since the outbreak of the new intifada, Abdullah has become a vocal supporter of the Palestinians and a critic of US policy. Last year he canceled a trip to Washington but pointedly did go to Canada at the time, making his annoyance visible. Since September 11, while denouncing terrorism, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of what many Saudis see as a US media assault on the Kingdom, discussed in the lead story of this issue.
Although effectively regent, Abdullah is not King, and his powers are not unlimited. Some believe that the personally incorruptible Abdullah might carry out serious reforms if given the real opportunity, but because of his own age he may not enjoy the opportunity once Fahd finally leaves the scene. Prince Sultan, the next in line after Abdullah, does not enjoy a similar reputation.
Abdullah has four wives, one of them as mentioned of Syrian origin, and has seven sons and some 15 daughters. One son, Prince Mutib, is a senior general in the National Guard, and several other sons hold key positions.
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