Age wearied them: King Abdulaziz, (top left) was in a wheelchair when he met President Roosevelt in 1945; King Saudi (on right in top right photograph) was regularly absent due to to health problems. His successor King Faisal was fit, but couldn’t escape an assassin’s bullet in 1975; King Khaled (middle left) had already had one heart attack by the time he became king in 1982; King Fahd (middle right) suffered a devastating stroke in 1995; King Abdullah (bottom left) was immobilised by back pain and King Salman (bottom right) was 79 when he became Saudi head of state in January 2015.
The ill-health and senility that has plagued Saudi Arabia’s monarchs for more than 70 years may be the main reason why King Salman decided last month to skip an entire generation of Saudi princes and name his 32-year old son as heir to the kingdom’s throne.
He is perhaps drawing on his own experiences which extend to the final years of the reign of his father, who died in 1953. King Abdulaziz, almost blind and confined to a wheelchair, had become in his final years a shadow of the dynamic personality who unified most of Arabia under the rule of the Al-Saud in the first third of the 20th century.
King Salman will remember how his father’s age and infirmity undermined his capacity to rule.
Abdulaziz’s eldest surviving son King Saud was only 52 but already well past his physical and mental peak when he succeeded. His 11 years on the throne saw modernisation quicken but many errors. Exasperated by King Saud’s missteps and lengthy absences caused by ill-health (in part brought on by alcohol abuse), his brothers forced him to abdicate aged 62 in favour of King Faisal, a man of ascetic habits and in excellent condition. Saud was to die in exile five years later.
Faisal was a sprightly 69 when he was assassinated by a family member in 1975. His successor King Khaled was 62 when he succeeded but already had serious health problems. He had a heart attack and heart surgery five years earlier. Further heart surgery was required in 1978. Hip problems reduced his mobility. Khaled died of a final heart attack in 1982 during Israel’s Lebanon invasion.
At that point, King Fahd as deputy premier and crown prince had effectively been running the kingdom for years. He was 60 when he succeeded and initially displayed high levels of energy. But Fahd was a heavy smoker, overweight for much of his adult life and suffering from diabetes and arthritis. As he aged, he would retreat to the desert for months, leaving many major policy issues undecided.
In 1995, Fahd suffered a devastating stroke and was essentially incapacitated for 10 years until his death in 2005. During this time, a struggle for power developed between his brother and then crown prince Abdullah and other senior Al-Saud family members.
Abdullah was 76 when he succeeded. He was exceptionally active for a man of his age but disabilities eventually took their toll. He suffered serious back problems in his final years and spent months getting rest and treatment in Morocco after 2010. It was reported he had at least four major operations on his back. Abdullah was hospitalised suffering from pneumonia at the end of 2014 and died on 3 January the next year. Two of his half-brothers – Prince Sultan and Prince Nayef – were appointed as crown prince but died before they succeeded.
The senility of Saudi monarchs reached a new peak with the succession King Salman, another of King Abdullah’s half-brothers, at the age of 79. He appointed his half-brother Prince Muqrin, then aged 69, as crown prince but dismissed him just over three months later. It was reported that health issues were at least partly behind the move.
Muqrin’s replacement Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, then aged 55, was the first from the grandsons of King Abdulaziz named as heir to the Saudi throne. He was not fully fit, however, and was affected by injuries suffered when a bomb was detonated outside the Ministry of Interior, which he then headed, in 2009. Unsubstantiated reports say Nayef had become dependent upon painkillers and this was a factor behind his unexpected replacement by Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on 21 June.
On top of this, there are suggestions that King Salman himself is suffering from age-related neurological degeneration. An unsubstantiated report this month that King Salman’s recorded an abdication speech has raised the prospect that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will become the kingdom’s head of state and prime minister before the end of the year.
This would be a remarkable development, but not an unprecedented one for the Middle East’s most powerful nation.
King Salman himself was made governor of Riyadh province before he was 30. Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s founder and first king, took over leadership of the Al-Saud clan and seized the Najd when he was just 27.
But that was when Arabia was poor and unimportant.
Today, Saudi Arabia wields great power in world oil markets and the global Muslim community. Its economy is the largest in the region and the kingdom’s a member of the G20 grouping of major nations. Saudi Arabia controls a formidable arsenal of advanced military equipment. Its soldiers are fighting in Yemen.
Why then is King Salman, now 81 but still only 30 months into his reign, not only prepared to step aside but poised to hand ultimate power to his talented but inexperienced son?
There are family reasons. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is the eldest son of the king’s third and apparently happiest marriage. He’s demonstrated to his father he has the capacity to take the top job. And, in the background, an ambitious and well-connected mother has championed the crown prince’s cause.
These things matter.
But of at least equal significance is that Crown Prince Mohammed is not only fit enough to do the job. He is young enough to ensure the drift and the jockeying for power that have dominated the final years of every Saudi king will be postponed for decades.
There are risks in appointing someone so young so soon. But the risks of waiting too long may have been seen to be greater.
Saudi Arabia is no longer a country for old kings.