Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the Governor of Riyadh, was in New Delhi in mid-April as a state guest. The visit almost went unnoticed in India. Even the fact that he was the guest of the country’s Vice-President was insufficient to generate adequate interest in the media. The solitary exception was the coverage about Jamia Millia Islamia – the well-known university in New Delhi -- awarding a Honoris Causa (Honorary Doctor of Letter) to the visitor for his humanitarian work. Pre-occupied with trivia, the mainstream media exhibited its ignorance about Prince Salman’s background. It is widely believed that he is the favourite of King Abdullah. When he became the Custodian of the Two Holy Places in August 2005, Abdullah elevated the then Second Prime Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz as the new Crown Prince. It was widely believed that he wanted to name Prince Salman as the Second Deputy Prime Minister, or heir to the heir apparent. There was a hitch, however. Though a favourite of King Abdullah, Prince Salman was a few years younger than the long-term Interior Minister Prince Nayif. To avoid potential tensions within the ruling family, Abdullah deliberately did not name his Second Deputy Prime Minister. The prolonged convalesce of the Crown Prince in Morocco however forced the King to look for someone to run the day-to-day affairs when he was out of the country or on holidays. It was under those circumstances that in March 2009, more than three years after he became the King, Abdullah named Nayif as the next-in-line after the Crown Prince.
This does not diminish the influence of Prince Salman, who is largely depicted as a principal arbitrator of disputes within the royal family. He is also the owner the highly respected and influential Ashraq al-Awsat, an international Arabic daily published from London. Such a pedigree and influence however proved to be insufficient for the Indian media.
For a change, the Indian establishment was pragmatic and more forward looking than its intelligentsia. By establishing personal rapport with senior members of the royal family, the Indian government has signalled its desire to accord due importance to Saudi Arabia. Coming within weeks after the Riyadh Declaration, at least those who went with the Prime Minister should have taken note of the significance. To paraphrase Shashi Tharoor, media is interested only in trivia, infamy and controversies. And Prince Salman does not belong to any of them, and hence the near total blackout.
There is another interesting twist to Prince Salman’s pedigree. The Prince has been holding that post for close to 50 years; yes, since 1962.He was not alone. A number of principal figures in the Saudi establishment trace their appointment to the early 1960s when King Saud and King Faisal were at the helm of affairs. This included the present King Abdullah, who is also the commander of the elite National Guards since its inception in 1962. In the same year, the King’s half brother and Crown Prince Sultan took over as the Saudi Defence Minister, a post that he holds until this day. The multilingual Saud bin Faisal was appointed as Foreign Minister following the assassination of his father King Faisal in 1975. In most cases, the day to day running of the respective Ministries is managed by their respective sons.
This highlights the delicate balance that the al-Saud family has managed to evolve to keep all principal contenders to power satiated and engaged. Holding the same position for decades must be too boring for many but not for the Saudi princes.
Honorary Director of MEI
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