RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Suffering from a painful slipped disc, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz pointed out to a recent group of well-wishers that the Arabic name for his ailment is awfully close to the phrase “women’s nerve.”
So he was puzzled at his affliction, he joked, since “we have not seen but only good things from women.”
The king, who is in his late 80s, is now convalescing at New York Presbyterian Hospital after a “successful” Nov. 23 operation to treat a blood clot that formed around the herniated disc, the royal court has said.
The king’s good humor about his back pain, as well as a string of official updates on his condition — issued because of what the royal court called the king’s “principle of transparency” — appear aimed at reassuring Saudis and foreigners that his health setback is not a cause for major concern.
That may be true. But it has not halted renewed speculation among Saudis and diplomats here over royal succession in this oil-rich kingdom, throwing into high relief critical issues for the future of this key U.S. ally and leading oil producer.
The kingdom at present is ruled by an aging royal elite, several of whom are plagued by ill health. Meanwhile, a second-generation of ambitious, middle-aged princes are eager to move into key positions.
Underlying these generational realities is the question of how a royal succession — inevitable in the not-so-distant future — will affect the tentative reforms launched by King Abdullah.
Those reforms — in schools, courts, the job market and press freedom — are aimed at positioning Saudi Arabia to better cope with what is probably its biggest challenge: A fast-growing youth population that soon will need jobs, homes and more recreational outlets.
A huge part of Saudi society welcomes the reforms. But an equally huge part is concerned that the king is instituting change too fast and wants to slacken its pace.
In most countries, this division would seem a recipe for instability. But, at least for now, Saudi Arabia is one of the most stable regimes in the Middle East, compared to neighbors like Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt.
Such stability partly exists because the upper echelon of the House of Saud is comprised of pragmatic politicians who are well aware that the unity of the country depends on their own unity.
As a result, intense divisions and rivalries are eventually layered over with consensus.
For months now, Saudis have assumed that serious bargaining is going on within the family, not just about who will be in the kingly lineup to succeed Abdullah, but also about which sons of high-profile princes will succeed their fathers in key posts.
Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who is also deputy prime minister, came home from an extended stay in Morocco to act as regent just before King Abdullah left for New York on Nov. 22. Sultan has been in treatment for two years for what is believed to be cancer, and still not able to take on a full workload, diplomats said.
Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the second deputy prime minister and interior minister, is widely viewed as next in line to the throne. Sultan’s diminished health, diplomats add, suggest that for all intents and purposes, Nayef will run the country while the king is away.
Just how long that will be is unknown. The royal court has not yet said when the king will return.
Religious conservatives unhappy with the changes under King Abdullah expect that if he becomes king, Nayef will restore some of their lost influence and stall the reformist pulse. Such a rollback is possible since most reforms have not been firmed into institutions.
“Changes made since Abdullah acceded in 2005 lack an institutional basis and have not captured the imagination of the Saudi public, leading to the impression that they constitute personal whims that can just as easily be taken back,” wrote Neil Partrick, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, in an essay for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Succession in this absolute monarchy has been fairly straightforward since the country’s founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, died in 1953. Five sons have succeeded him: Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah.
Some Saudis fear an extended period of short rules by elderly men, many with serious health issues, if all those waiting in the wings to be king among the founder’s sons insist on their claim to rule. Such a period would likely slow the structural and institutional changes needed if the kingdom is to stay globally competitive.
Most observers believe that the next two or three crown princes will still emerge from this elderly first generation of sons. But at the same time, they also expect that second-generation royals, grandsons of the founder, will slip into more powerful positions.
King Abdullah is known to favor promoting members of this younger generation. He set an example just before departing for New York, appointing his son Prince Miteb head of the Saudi National Guard, a post the king has held since 1962.
The move was widely seen as a way to strengthen Prince Miteb’s hand in the family horse-trading over top jobs presumed to be happening behind palace doors.
Other prominent second-generation figures expected to fill high-profile jobs at some point in the near future include Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef; Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Sultan; Eastern Province Governor Mohammed bin Fahd; former Intelligence Chief Turki bin Faisal, and Mecca Governor Khalid bin Faisal.
Future royal successions also will be different than those in the past because of the Allegiance Council, which was set up in 2006 by King Abdullah to give grandsons a role in choosing crown princes. The council also is to play a role in removing a king or crown prince incapacitated by illness.
Comprised of 35 sons and grandsons of King Abdul Aziz, it is an untested body. At least initially, it would likely rubber stamp decisions already reached through the time-worn process of family bargaining.
But the council’s procedures include a potentially interesting one: In the event of an impasse, the crown prince would be chosen by secret ballot.
Awadh Al Badi, a scholar at Riyadh’s King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, has written a monograph on the council. In a recent interview, he said that if Crown Prince Sultan predeceases the king, then it is “implicit” in the council’s bylaws that it should be called into session to help select the next crown prince.
And if Sultan succeeds King Abdullah, the bylaws are even more “explicit,” Al Badi said. “He has to go through the Allegiance Council” to choose a new crown prince.
“In the end,” added Al Badi, “the legitimacy has to come through the institution … especially if there is no agreement. It’s the only legitimate institution now” for royal successions.