Saturday, January 24, 2015

Who Is More "Demented,": Saudi King Salman Or The Washington Post?

Prior to his accession to the throne of the world's largest oil exporter yesterday, pretty much all reports one could find had then Crown Prince Salman ibn Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Sa'ud as the Man In Charge during the final decline of his predecessor, the late King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Sa'ud, who died at the age of 90, having been born by all publicly available reports in Riyadh on August 1, 1924, reportedly not the fave son of his old man as his mother was the widow of the last al Rashidi Emir of Hail, the ancient family enemies of the Sa'ud family (bear with me, this is relevant later, really).  However, if one googles Salman today, one finds that in fact his mind is "ravaged with dementia" or lesser claims of this sort, with many news sources simply reporting now as a fact that the new king of Saudi Arabia is "demented."  Really?

So, it turns out that all these reports come from a single source, although when I sent it to the blog Crossroads Arabia they refused to print it, today's Washington Post, a story on A16 by Kevin Sullivan and Liz Sly, both of whom should be taken out and publicly flogged in Jama'a Square of Riyadh for writing one of the most incompetent stories ever to appear in that newspaper.

They quote a single source for the claim that Salman is as they claim, Baker Chair Holder at the Institute for Near East Policy, Simon Henderson, who used to be a reporter for the Financial Times,  and who in 2009 wrote a book on Saudi succession.  He is quoted as saying, "Having a king with dementia is the last thing they need at this difficult time...Yemen is falling apart, ISIS is knocking at the door...this is an extraordinarily dangerous Middle East from a Saudi perspective."  Wow, hot stuff. Aside from the report on Salman nobody knew of this prior to his informing us of it.

So, I did some digging.  While nobody else on the planet has provided such claims, Henderson has been putting this stuff out since late December when he reported that he had heard of people meeting with Salman, then Crown Prince with his predecessor in the hospital, telling him that Salman could talk sensibly for several minutes, but then would become "incomprehensible." Maybe, although it  should be kept in mind that there was a battle royal going on behind the scenes with certain Saudi family factions trying to weaken Salman's claim on the monarchy at that crucial time.

So, just how credible more generally is Simon Henderson?  Well, in his December report he was claiming that King Abdullah was 91 years old and that Salman was 78 years old.  Every source I can find has, as I noted earlier, Abdullah being born on August 1, 1924, and Salman being born on December 31, 1935.  I have seen no sources providing any other dates.  You all can do the math.

How about WaPo?  Well, it was bad enough that the authors of this story relied so heavily on the incredibly unreliable Henderson, but they also made even more elementary mistakes.  So, in the very second line of the story they manage to misspell the name of the father of the dead king (and the new king) as "Adbul Aziz."  He was Abdul Azis, although I prefer the more academic and widely used "Abdulaziz."  Anyway, they got the b and d reversed in the name of the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  This is like reporting on "George Wahsington." 

Then these incompetent clunks report the age of the new Crown Prince, Muqrin ibn Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Sa'ud, as 71. Every source I can find has his birth date as September 15, 1945. As I said earlier regarding the reporting by Simon Henderson of ages of Saudi royal family members, you all can do the math.  One of the most incompetent articles ever published in the WaPo. Really.

So, what has happened since this demented king took power?  Well, he has formally appointed Emir (Prince)  Muqrin (also known as "Moqrin" and "Mogren") Crown Prince, despite his having a Yemeni concubine for a mother.  Furthermore, he appointed his son, Mohammed, to succeed him as Minister of Defense and also to be Chair of the Royal Court.  I have already reported that another son, Abdulaziz, is a Deputy Minister of Petroleum, and another, Sultan, was the first Arab in space going on a US space shuttle in 1985 and is now the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, while another, Faisal, is Governor of Madinah province. What a loser, this demented king.  Not on top of things at all.  Just totally incomprehensible.

Furthermore, the second generation succession problem, regarding which enormous amounts of ink ha been spilled, and gobs of dollars have been spent on conferences declaring this problem could not be solved, not to mention Henderson's book, has been resolved by an announcement by this demented king.  He has appointed a new Second Deputy Prime Minister, the oddly named position that has served since the now late Abdullah was appointed to it in 1982 after he threatened  a coup by his SANG units, as the position from which one will become Crown Prince on the death of the current king, with new Crown Prince Muqrin having been in exactly that position until the clearly demented Salman moved him up to his current position.  The new Second Deputy Prime Minister, and thus likely Second-in-Line to become Malik {King) of al Mamlaka as-Sa'udiya al 'Arabiya (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) is Mohammed ibn Nayef ibn Abdulaziz al Sa'ud, the first person to be in line for this position who is a son of  a son of the nation's founder rather than being one of his 43 sons, of whom Muqrin is the youngest at (yes!) 69.

I had not had him on my short list, but he is of the several hundred grandsons of Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal al Sa'ud one who has some serious things going for him.  His late father was Crown Prince until he died and was the hardline Minister of the Interior to which position his son succeeded when he died, and Nayef was the next to last to die of the "Sudairi Seven" sons of the favorite wife of the nation's founder, his first cousin, Assa as-Sudairi, with the last of those sons being the new king, the reputedly demented Salman.  Adding to Mohammed ibn Nayef's cred is that in 2009 al Qaeda attempted to assassinate him, which, as some have noted means that he is obviously a serious person in their eyes. It took them awhile, but eventually the Saudi royal family figured out that al Qaeda was their mortal enemy.

In any case, probably this is all a show, cooked up previously by the 35 member Allegiance Council, set up by Abdullah some years ago to deal with the succession issue, and they acted ahead of time, which explains why gullible Simon Henderson was being fed half-baked rumors, foreseeing that the successor to Abdullah might not be 100% on top of things, so they really needed to get this all resolved before Abdullah died.  We shall not know, but the secretive Saudis have clearly been more than one step ahead of the outsiders trying to report on their decisions, and certainly far ahead of the ludicrous Simon Henderson, not to mention the even more pathetically incompetent Washington Post.

Barkley Rosser

Update:  A further note I should add is that arguments have been made that not only the accession of Salman, but most importantly the announcements of the new deputy Crown Prince and the elevation of his son to two powerful positions represents a victory by the powerful faction of the "Sudairi Seven" of whom Salman is the last living member. But, both Mohammed ibn Nayef and Mohammed ibn Salman are junior members of this faction.  So, pretty clearly their elevation shows that the Sudairi Seven and more specifically their offspring, have won the succession struggle and are in charge.

In particular, the elevation of Mohammed ibn Nayef to be second in line to the monarchy as the first of the second generation to be so in line does put him ahead of some better known and powerful competitors.  Curiously, one of the most well known rivals is Bandar bin Sultan, another offspring of one of the Sudairi Seven, who was born in 1949 compared with Mohammed who was born in 1959.  Some of this may be a matter of age, and this certainly applies for  some of the other rivals.  In any case, Bandar's father was a full brother of both Salman and Nayek (and late King Fahd) and was Minister of Defense for decades and was named Crown Prince when Fahd died and Abdullah became king.

Furthermore, Bandar had long been one of the most powerful and prominent of the second generation, serving as Ambassador to the US between 1983-2005 (the year Abdullah became king). He has also served as Chair of the Security Council and was Intelligence Chief from 2012 to 2014. Close friend of the Bush family and a longtime heavy hitter, he was an obvious candidate for elevation.  However, apparently he has been in conflict with various parties in Riyadh.  He completely disappeared between 2008 and 2010, only to reappear in triumph.  It has been rumored that despite his past friendship with Americans, he has advocated an approach more independent of the US, particularly with regard to Syria, where he advocated funding and supporting radical Sunni opponents of the Bashar regime. He was also a leader of those who criticized Obama for not following through on his threat to bomb Syria after the chemical war attacks.  It may be that Bandar was removed from running Intelligence over these issues, and this may have also ended his chances for  moving up, even if his father was Crown Prince before the full brother of his father who was father of the guy who did get moved up.

There is another faction of second generation leaders in Saudi Arabia, some of whom are the most powerful people in the nation, with all of them cut out.  Probably the problem is age.  I am referring to the sons of the most powerful and revered of all the 43 sons of the nation's founder, the late King Faisal, who was assassinated in 1975.  In that year his second oldest son, Saud, born in 1940, was named Foreign Minister.  Princeton-educated Saud is still Foreign Minister, by now by far the world's longest lasting Foreign Minister, and possibly the most powerful person in Saudi Arabia, aside perhaps from Salman.  Rumor has it that he is not in good health and has tried to retire from his current position, but has remained in it at the strong urging from his family members.  In any case, as his revered father's successor as Foreign Minister, he clearly could have moved up. But age and health have prevented him (Faisal's oldest son, Mohammed, is the Founder of the Islamic Development Bank and a world leader of the international Islamic banking movement).

Another of Faisal's sons is Harvard-educated Turki, born in 1945, who ran Saudi intelligence from 1979-2001, and has also served as Ambassador to both the US and UK.  He has been a very public figured, commenting on Saudi affairs around the world.  He seems to be in good  shape, but he seems to suffer from a similar taint as Bandar, too much time out of the country and too much of a loose cannon not in synch with the family.  In any case, he did not get it.

Finally, we have the "al Faisal" (these brothers now go publicly by that moniker as their last names, implying that they are a new family line separate from the al Sa'ud)., Khalid, born in 1940 and a half brother of Saud and Turki.  He is in good health and currently Minister of Education as well as having previously served as Governor of Mecca and of another province earlier.  At the time that the youngest of the first generation, Muqrin, was named Deputy Crown Prince a few years ago, rumor had it that Khalid was his main rival, even thought Khalid was older than Muqrin.  Reportedly, Khalid had much favor with the late King Abdullah.  But, in the end, the Allegiance Council, the 35 who decide these things, were not yet ready to bit the bullet and select someone from the second generation, instead giving the first generation one last round as king.  By now, with Abdullah's influence gone, Khalid is too old, and for whatever reason, the al Faisals are not getting the ring, with a young member of the Sudairi clan getting it instead.  If there was an ultimate showdown, this was probably it, between the Sudairis and the al Faisals, who have not been mentioned at all in any of the stories about the succession. In any case, they lost.


Bruce Webb said...

Hi Barkley. Let me do the math.

Friday was Jan 23, 2015

Using your dates:
Abdullah born Aug 21, 1924. So 76 on Aug 21, 2000, 90 on Aug 21, 2014 and so 90 5/12 years old on the day he died.
Salman born Dec 31, 1935. So 65 on Dec 31, 2000, 79 on Dec 31, 2014 and so 79 years 1/12 years old on the day Abdullah died.

So Abdullah was half a year younger than "91" (7/12th) and Salman a full year old than "78" (13/12) for a total discrepancy of a year and 2/3rds (20/12).

I hold no brief for Henderson but why is this discrepancy (which could just be the result of lazy Googling on "Age Salman") important in context? Would "90 vs 79" be that much more significant than "91 vs 78" and if so why?

And then we have Muqrin born on Sept 15, 1945. Which would put him at 55 on Sept 15, 2000 and 69 on Sept 15, 2014. Which admittedly is different than the "71" reported by the WaPo but which makes the WaPO "incompetent clunks" under what criteria? I mean I understand the importance of fact checking and copy editing. On the other hand you have a paragraph that reads "regarding which enormous amounts of ink ha been spilled" which unless you are channelling poet Robbie Burns is somewhere in the same neighborhood.

I am a huge and long-time admirer (and friend?) of you and your work and have no quarrel with your analysis of the internal dynamics of the House of Saud. But I find this dismissal of Henderson based even in small part on a failure to calculate dates a little baffling. It seems that indignation at his conclusions has gotten ahead of your sense of proportion. What am I missing here? said...


Yeah, I know, being very anal. Guess I was annoyed that we had a story that in effect went all over the place making these claims, with Henderson the only source. But then we find him (and the Post) bungling stuff that is pretty simple and basic.

Some of this, frankly but which I did not say in the story, is that I am suspicious of Henderson based on where he is based. This institute has a reputation for being probably the most closely tied to Israeli interests in Washington of any that deals with Middle Eastern policy. Makes me wonder if there is some agenda herer to undermine Salman coming out of Israel. That may not be fair, but in the meantime I got offended by such bad reporting and such reliance on somebody who seems himself to mess up on elementary stuff for such an important point.

BTW, there are others who have made the claims that Henderson has. The Post today in another story quoted him again, verbatim from the story yesterday. However, they did note that others disagree with this, quoting an unnamed diplomat who claimed to have had an extended conversation with Salman last month in which he was completely there.

I also note, as I suggested, that there were reasons based on interfamilial and cross-tribal rivalries in the jockeying over the succession for rivals/enemies of Salman and his family to spread rumors of incompetence. Nobody who has actually seen this supposed "incomprehensiblity" has spoken up publicly. Rather these rumors have been leaded to the likes of Henderson, although, of course, they might be true.

That sai, he apparently managed to made a perfectly comprehensible public speech after becoming king. He is not all that out of it, at least not yet. But, it is clear that he has and has had a variety of health problems. He used to be the enforcer/conciliator of the royal family, but has retreated from that role in recent years, and by most accounts did not do as good of a job as Defense Minister as he did in his 48 years as Governor of Riyadh, for which he has been highly praised. said...

On the matter of the Israeli connection, it is probably not the case that whatever Henderson is saying or not having much to do with it, at least partly due to the fact that it is not obvious what Israel's interest is with Saudi Arabia, although what goes on there is certainly a matter of interest to them.

Indeed, in recent years the Israelis and Saudis have been seeing eye to eye on a number of issues relative to the US. In particular they are both unhappy with the US-Iran negotiations and would like the US to take a harder line with Iran. Whatever is King Salman's condition, I doubt that the Saudi position or attitude on these matters is likely to change much in the near future. So, I do not really see much reason for the Israelis to be messing with Salman or the Saudis.