Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdelaziz Al Saud died Saturday in New York where he was undergoing medical treatment. He was 80.
Sultan became crown prince after his brother Abdullah succeeded to the throne in 2005. But since his illness in 2008, he has rarely appeared in public and had handed over much of his responsibilities to other members of the family.
The prince underwent surgery in New York in 2009. He spent nearly a year abroad recuperating in the US and at a palace in Agadir, Morocco, before returning to the kingdom last November a day before king Abdullah went to New York for back surgery himself.
Though the royal family never disclosed his illness, a leaked US diplomatic cable from January 2010 claimed that Sultan had been receiving treatment for colon cancer since 2009.
Sultan was the sixteenth of 45 recorded sons of King Abdelaziz, founder of the kingdom. That he was properly educated and honed to the exercise of power was due largely to his mother, the redoubtable Hussa bint Ahmed al-Sudairy, who was also the mother of six other full brothers. Of the seven full brothers, Prince Naif, the interior minister, is the oldest survivor.
Sheikha Hussa not only prepared her sons for government, but she also taught them the value of sticking together. Apart from Sultan himself and his father, the late King Fahd, two others, Naif and Salman, rose to prominence as interior minister and governor of Riyadh respectively.
One of the most conspicuous features of his career was his longevity in office – almost five decades. He was appointed to run the Ministry of Defence and Civil Aviation in 1962 and remained in the post under his death.
Those who knew Sultan say that his legacy was “his strategic vision, the capacity to think big”, in particular after the 1973/74 oil price rises brought in oil revenues on an unprecedented scale to Saudi Arabia, sole owner of more than one-quarter of proven global oil reserves.
Sultan made it his business to acquire the most modern defence equipment that money could buy, mainly from the US.
The US military sales and assistance programmes came in all shapes and sizes, from battle tanks to fighters, from advanced land and air command-and-control systems, to logistics and training.
Sultan was also deeply involved in the US’s covert campaign to provide money and missiles to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
One analyst said Sultan’s vision went a long way to fix Saudi Arabia into the US orbit. But he also presided over what another analyst described as “the most colossal amount of money, in proportion to the size of a country’s economy, ever poured down the barrel of a gun”.
From the mid-seventies and into the 21st century, Saudi Arabia spent more than one- third of its annual budgets, around 12 per cent of its gross domestic product (gdp), on defence and security each year, more than three times the amounts spent by the US. The performance of the armed forces, however, was not improving in line with the expenditures.
Indeed Saudi Arabia was at a loss when, in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and, at a stroke, posed a threat to the Kingdom.
The source of all the money, for both contracts and commissions, was thought to be Sultan, whose personal power of patronage, both inside and outside Saudi Arabia, was said to be unmatched by any in his family.
In his in his 2003 family tree of the Al Saud family, historian Michael Field wrote that Sultan was “famous for having become very rich in his job” although his son Bandar has denied that corruption was ever as rampant as it was thought.
The defence spending came to be increasingly resented, particularly by the younger generation of educated Saudis, many of whom, in private, compare Sultan unfavourably with his half-brother king Abdullah.
Since taking over in 2005 the king has instituted oversight over defence spending and clamped down on royal family excesses.
Although there were persistent reports of tensions between the king and the crown prince, Saudi analysts say there was more understanding and cooperation than would have been expected.
In March 2009, just few days before he headed to London for a G20 summit, King Abdullah appointed his half brother Prince Naif as the second deputy prime minister, a post traditionally held by the next in line. The move signalled that Crown Prince Sultan might not live to become a king and helped calm fears of a political vacuum should anything happen to the king.
In the royal Saudi tradition, Sultan had several wives, who gave him 33 children. Among the best known are Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the US, and Khaled, the Saudi commander in the 1990/91 Gulf war, and assistant defence minister since 2001.
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