Prince's Death Reveals Saudi Succession Issues

Ari Shapiro talks to Thomas Lippman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, about the successor to the crown prince in Saudi Arabia and the complex Saudi royal family. The crown prince — heir apparent to the throne — died last weekend, and a new one has been appointed by King Abdullah: the king's 78-year-old half-brother.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep are away. Saudi Arabia has a new heir to the throne, Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz. He's the country's interior minister, and the half brother of King Abdullah. Vice President Joe Biden has been in Saudi Arabia this week, offering condolences on the death of former Crown Prince, Sultan, who use to be the second in line.

That death raised complex succession issues in the Saudi Kingdom. We asked Thomas Lippman into the studio to help explain what happens now. He's a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Welcome.

THOMAS LIPPMAN: Thank you, good morning. Nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what we know about Prince Nayef.

LIPPMAN: Prince Nayef has a reputation, well-deserved, as being a socially conservative, tough guy. Prince Nayef is a policeman. He's not a philosopher king. Certainly he is not perceived as a forward thinker on the subject of women's rights. We don't know, exactly, what policies he will pursue, but I think there is some anxiety about that, just as there was when Abdullah became king and people in Washington thought he was anti-American. It turned out not to be the case.

SHAPIRO: He's in his 70s, from what I understand. With the king in his 80s, why not appoint somebody younger?

LIPPMAN: Well, what you have here is a situation in which everyone understands that all the kings up to now have been sons of the founder, King Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, and under the law, his sons or grandsons can be designated. They collectively, the royal family, has so far avoided the kind of neuralgic moment at which they have to go what's known as the grandson's generation. You still have a few aging but vigorous princes of the original generation of sons who are available and qualified.

SHAPIRO: Well, does the fact that we're not going to that grandson's generation just yet, suggest that we're not likely to see a dramatic change in policy in the kingdom?

LIPPMAN: In my opinion, you're going to have, from whoever is the king, a fairly narrow range of policies on the international scene. If you think of a clock, whoever is king is going to be somewhere between 5:30 and 7:45 on the policy spectrum, you might say. The differences are more likely to be visible on domestic policies and on the social liberalization. Some are more amenable to that than others.

SHAPIRO: Talk about the actual selection process. Do the people have any say at all?

LIPPMAN: None whatsoever. For those who are not familiar with it, the best way to think of it is it's similar to what happens at the Vatican for the selection of a new pope. A bunch of very senior elderly people go into a room and they stay there until the selection has been made, and no one knows anything about the deliberations.

SHAPIRO: For people sitting at home in the United States, what's the significance of who the king of Saudi Arabia is?

LIPPMAN: Well, in the short to medium term, I don't think it matters that much. People don't go to Saudi Arabia much for fun, although we did - we went there on a cruise last year.

SHAPIRO: But in terms of counter-terrorism and international strategy...

LIPPMAN: But in terms of counter-terrorism, since 2003 when there was an uprising by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the senior princes have understood that over the previous 15 to 20 years, they had created a monster in the form of the religious extremism. Officially policy now is to eliminate extremism from the curriculum, from the mosques, and anyone who's likely to be king is pretty much going to be in sync with that policy.

So that leaves the regional security issues. Saudi Arabia has no formal defense agreement or commitment with the United States, it never has had. But everyone understands that in the event of a real threat to the security or territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia, they'll call the White House and the White House will respond.

SHAPIRO: Thomas Lippman is author of the book "Arabian Knight." He's at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Thanks for your time.

LIPPMAN: My pleasure.

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