Middle East Features
Discreetly, Saudis speculate about the throne succession (Feature)
By Anne-Beatrice Clasmann Nov 20, 2009, 1:08 GMT
Jeddah - The palaces of Saudi Arabia's royal family lie concealed behind high walls.
The ruling family Ibn Saud is however not only discreet when it comes to protecting its private sphere, but also the significance of the personnel decisions which are made behind the heavy palace doors is not readily understandable to the Saudi people.
As a result, repeated speculation about assumed power shifts and jostling for position at the top of the Islamic kingdom is always making the rounds.
Nowadays, above all it is the question of how King Abdullah plans to organise the succession to the throne which is a matter of hefty discussion - albeit in whispers. For there is no topic that is more sensitive than that of the royal succession.
The cause of the current round of speculation is found in the recent appointments made by the king. This week he upgraded the role of long-time Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in which the king appointed the worldly prince as chairman of the influential economic council.
At the same time, King Saud named Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, son of Interior Minister Prince Nayef, to the economic council. In doing so, the king has for a second time made a nod to Prince Nayef, even though the latter, in contrast to the reform-oriented king, is conservative.
Last March, the king named Prince Nayef as the country's second Deputy Premier - a posting which Abdullah himself had used as a stepping stone for being named as successor to the throne.
Adding fuel to the debate about the throne succession is the fact that Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, who just like Prince Nayef is one of the number of half-brothers of the king, is not in the best of health.
In the past few years the crown prince has spent a lot of time in his palace in Morocco in order to rest up. The royal house meanwhile is stressing that the designated successor to the throne is on the road to recovery and that his return home is only a matter of weeks.
Those Saudis who are seeking to achieve freedom of opinion, women's rights and educational reforms wish King Abdullah, who is around 85 years old, in any event the longest-possible life.
Under his leadership, a woman for the first time was named as deputy premier - a revolutionary step in a country where even now women may neither drive cars nor vote.
Prince Nayef, by contrast, is not exactly considered to be a champion of women's emancipation. At a press conference recenty in the port city of Jeddah, he declared, 'a man who permits his daughter or wife to work as a secretary for another man is not a real man.'
Walid Abu al-Khair, who together with a dozen other like-minded people has published in Facebook a kind of human rights newsletter, says: 'From the point of view of the reform-minded forces in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah is the supreme reformer.'
But in Saudi Arabia, the country which is home to Islam's holy sites, modernisers are only then successful if at the same time they are respected for preserving tradition.
'This university has been my dream for more than 25 years,' the Saudi monarch said when on September 23 he officially opened the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) in a desert area some 80 kilometres outside of Jeddah. It is the only university in the country in which men and women can study together.
Despite such signs of progress, reformers sound a note of caution.
'When our king needs 25 years in order to realize his dream, then how much patience are we going to have to show?' asked Fouad al- Farhan, a blogger in Jeddah.
Al-Farhan, a software specialist and whose family name means 'the happy one,' was arrested in December 2007 because of his critical publications on issues of democracy and human rights. He spent four months in detention.