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Saudi succession stable, for now

The death of Fahd marks the first change of succession in Saudi Arabia in 23 years. NBC News Richard Engel discusses how the change of succession is expected to affect stability in the desert kingdom and U.S.- Saudi relations. 
New Saudi King Abdullah performs prayers during special prayers for late King Fahd at Riyadh's Turk bin Abdullah mosque on Tuesday. 
New Saudi King Abdullah performs prayers during special prayers for late King Fahd at Riyadh's Turk bin Abdullah mosque on Tuesday.  Amr Nabil / AP
/ Source: NBC News

King Fahd, the 84-year-old Saudi ruler, was laid to rest in a simple unmarked desert grave after prayers at a packed Riyadh mosque on Tuesday.

The death of Fahd marks the first change at the top in Saudi Arabia in 23 years. NBC News’ Richard Engel discusses how succession is expected to affect stability in the desert kingdom, in the Middle East region and U.S.- Saudi relations.

King Fahd’s half-brother, the former Crown Prince Abdullah, who has been the nation’s de facto ruler for the last 10 years, is now the king. How was such a smooth succession possible?
The succession issue was largely settled a long time ago. The fact that he has been the de facto ruler made for this very smooth transition. Everybody knew that Crown Prince Abdullah would become king. Everyone expected that. So there were no surprises, there were no power struggles.

Fahd has been very ill for a very long time. This issue had been particularly acute over the last two months since he was sick with pneumonia. He was even incubated, so that should give an idea of how problematic the pneumonia was.

At one stage, he appeared to be getting better. Only a week ago he had gotten out of bed, and people thought that was a sign that he was on the road to recovery. But then he died early Monday morning.

So, in the end, it was something of a surprise, but it didn’t create any succession issues.

Now, of course, there are succession issues because they recognize that with Fahd gone, the next people in line are all very old.

We have King Abdullah now, who is himself 81, I believe that is the most accepted figure. Then there is the now-Crown Prince Sultan, who himself is, I’ve seen anywhere between 77 and 80 years old.  He was once treated for colon cancer, so he’s been ill himself.

So, the Saudis recognize that there is a succession issue that they are going to have to address.

We know who No. 1 is — King Abdullah. We know who No. 2 is — Crown Prince Sultan. But before, we also knew who was the No. 3. Now, we don’t know that is. That position has been left vacant, perhaps purposefully.

I am hearing from royal sources that it has been left blank because they haven’t worked out what they are going to do with it yet. There may be a generation shift — they may jump to someone who is much younger than the current kings have been.

Traditionally, all the kings of Saudi Arabia have been sons of the founder of Saudi Arabia and they’ve gone from one son to the next. Now, there could be a shift after we go through these two leaders of going to the next generation — the grandsons or even cousins or another male relative in the royal family.

So, right now, we are in something of a crossroads because they recognize that they are entering a face when there could be rapid turnover of rulers. So, this one was smooth, but there is no guarantee that the next one will be.

How will this succession affect the overall stability of the region?
The region had been preparing for this; they had expected it. So, it is not a major issue in the region. It is not sending other countries around into any sort of panic. It is much more of a domestic issue in terms of stability and the power dynamics in the country.

What we had for the last 10 years was Fahd effectively out of the picture, with then-Crown Prince Abdullah running the day-to-day affairs of the country. But he wasn’t fully in charge. He still had to have things approved by the king.

Now that gave the king’s enormous personal entourage a tremendous amount of power. Those princes are all now very nervous about what’s going to happen in the future. The power they were wielding is now gone or quickly diminishing. 

So, in terms of instability, I think that’s where it would lie, not necessarily on a regional level.

Saudi officials are saying that don’t expect any major changes of foreign policy.

King Fahd embraced the West, and Abdullah himself is seen as having a close relationship with President Bush — the two met at Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch a few months ago. How is Abdullah expected to continue that policy and foster the Saudi relationship with the United States?
There is an expectation on the part of the Saudi people for Abdullah to come into his own, to not be as blindly pro-American as Fahd was perceived to be, although they don’t expect any radical shift of policy. But the perception on the ground is that Fahd was much more pro-American than Abdullah.

For example, Fahd was the one who allowed U.S. troops into Saudi Arabia in 1990, when faced with a threat from Iraq. That was a controversial move in this country.

Fahd had a reputation for trying to please everyone, and that he was somewhat of an appeasement lassie. That he wanted to appease the Americans, and his own royal family, he let the princes get away with a lot of shenanigans, and wanted to appease the Islamists, a bedrock of society.

By trying to do that, he might have created the inherent tensions and conflicts that are part of Saudi society today. It’s a polarized state where you have some people who are very pro-Western and some people are radical, violent Islamic extremists. 

What we are hearing from Saudi officials is that Abdullah might try now to focus more on the Palestinian issue than he has in the past. The meeting in Crawford between then-Crown Prince Abdullah and President Bush was thought here as quite a breakthrough. It was seen as an important meeting and that the two of them had a good bond.

There might be some more pressure here for Abdullah to follow up on that and to try to get more from the U.S. Particularly regarding promises on the Palestinian issue that were perceived to have been made before the war in Iraq — when there was talk of a Palestinian state. What we are hearing now is that Abdullah would now like to see some of those promises come into fruition. 

Fahd embraced the spread of a conservative branch of Islam, Wahhabism, within Saudi Arabia and abroad, that in its more radical form has been criticized for aiding the spread of militancy and, in turn, terrorism. Is the succession to Abdullah expected to change how the Saudi family embraces religion in order to secure its hold on power?   
Abdullah has a reputation of being more conservative and more religious. Fahd had somewhat a playboy image, especially in his youth. Abdullah doesn’t have that.

He is thought of as being more reserved in his behavior, more religious and strict. That’s why he is somewhat more popular with the Saudi people.

Fahd is remembered for doing a lot of building projects, particularly for refurbishing the mosques in Mecca. This country has gone through dramatic changes in terms of growth and the building of roads, schools and highways in the last 23 years since he was king.

So people do remember him for that. But he was not necessarily personally beloved. It’s a very strict religious society here, and he did have a reputation for being very pro-American and for having somewhat of a lax personal life and letting people around him get away with whatever they wanted. Abdullah is seen as being less tolerant of bad behavior.

Abdullah has also been very strong against al-Qaida. They have had many raids and crackdowns in Saudi Arabia against al-Qaida — particularly since 2003 when they began striking here.

So there is not a perception that Abdullah will placate al-Qaida in anyway, but he does have a reputation for being a more of a devout Muslim than some other members of the royal family.

How feasible is it that Abdullah would create any real change in a regime that is known for its stability?
Abdullah’s policy and his slogan has been “slow reform.” It was Abdullah who oversaw the local council elections earlier this year. They were limited to men and only limited to the local councils, but his buzz word has been slow reform.

I think he’ll continue to push on with that, but it is just as the slogan implies — slow. So, I don’t think we’ll see any fundamental changes of the government or it’s outlook here in the next few years.