King Abdullah’s health and the Signs of the Times

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is currently recovering from two recent surgeries in hospital in the US, may he, may we all be blessed with good health.


Dr. Kamal El-Helbawy of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism in London was quoted yesterday by [Iranian] Press TV as saying that a coup might take place in Saudi Arabia:

“It is possible that a coup could happen, and I see nothing to prevent that from happening,” Dr. Kamal Helbawy of the Center for the Study of Terrorism said in an interview with Press TV aired on Saturday. “Both in Qatar and Oman in the past, the sons of the kings stole the leadership from their fathers, and I think there is a rift in the house of Saud,” he added. [ … ] “With his old age and sickness, there is suspicion about succession. There has been tension in the family for several decades. I believe there is a political and religious crisis,” Helbawy said.

[ h/t Habiba Hamid ]


I have no special insight into the affairs of the Kingdom. I only mention this press report because just today I ran across a reference to the Kuwaiti Shi’ite author Jaber Bolushi and his book [downloadable here in Arabic], Appearance of Imam Mahdi in 2015 — which brings us back to King Abdullah.

We need (IMO) to get used to the idea that every newsworthy event has the potential to spark some kind of reaction in the apocalyptic mind.

I do not wish to suggest that any given event will necessarily spark a Mahdist response — just that it may — and that we should therefore keep tabs on Mahdist and messianic sentiment in general, and note carefully what “signs of the times” might prove persuasive to those who seek such things.


The Sunni site where I found Bolushi’s book mentioned, contained the following among a list of “signs” of the soon-coming of the Mahdi:

Death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (we wish him long life) in 2015: The Shia believe that King Abdullah will be the last king of the House of Saud before the appearance of the Mahdi. Jaber Bolushi cites a Hadith attributed to Prophet Mohammad صلى الله عليه وسلم (the Shia claim this Hadith used to be reported in Musnad Ahmad, but was later removed) in which the Prophet mentions that the last man who will govern Al-Hijaz (the region that includes Mecca & Medina) before the Mahdi will be called Abdullah and he will be the successor of his brother who is named by the name of an animal. The previous king of Saudi Arabia was King Fahd (Fahd means leopard). It is worth noting that King Abdullah is currently 84 years old. After he dies, a dispute will occur among the royal family as to who should succeed him. There will be a strife and blood shed. Then, people will search for the Mahdi and offer him allegiance between Rukun and Maqam in the Haram Masjid in Mecca.


My point is not to discuss the health of King Abdullah – I wish him well – nor the specifics of this particular prophecy – date-setting seems to me to be a fool’s errand, even according to the scriptures of the various religions where it is practiced.

My point, again, is that today’s news – whatever it is — will be “read” and understood within dozens of conflicting apocalyptic contexts, most of which we are in general unaware of, with possible repercussions on the world stage that may therefore take us by surprise.


Jean-Pierre Filiu in his recently published book, Apocalypse in Islam, writes that:

ambitious militia leaders, such as Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq and Hasan Nasrallah in Lebanon, consciously exploit popular messianic feeling in order to assert their authority at the expense of the Shi’i clerical establishment, without allowing themselves to fall captive to apocalyptic rhetoric. [ … ] For the moment, only the Iraqi militia known as the Supporters of the Imam Mahdi has actively sought to translate the rise of eschatological anxiety into political action. Yet one day a larger and more resourceful group, eager (like Abu Musab al-Suri) to tap the energy of the “masses” as a way of achieving superiority over rival formations, may be strongly tempted to resort to the messianic gambit. An appeal to the imminence of apocalypse would provide it with an instrument of recruitment, a framework for interpreting future developments, and a way of refashioning and consolidating its own identity. In combination, these things could have far-reaching and deadly consequences.

That’s the point.

3 thoughts on “King Abdullah’s health and the Signs of the Times”

  1. I think this article summarizes the state of play:

    Saudi King Abdullah, 86, leaves for medical tests in US, hands authority to crown prince
    By Lee Keath | Associated Press | Nov 22, 2010

    * * *

    Before he left, Abdullah issued a royal decree mandating Crown Prince Sultan, his half brother and heir to the throne, to “administer the nation’s affairs” in his absence. … The 85-year-old Sultan — also the defense and aviation minister — has his own health issues: He underwent surgery in New York in February 2009 for an undisclosed illness and spent nearly a year abroad recuperating in the United States and at a palace in Agadir, Morocco. Even since his return to Saudi Arabia in December last year, he has spent extended periods in Morocco — from which he had to be called home quickly on Sunday to be on hand to fill in during the king’s absence. His illness has never been confirmed, but diplomats have said he has been treated for cancer.

    The most likely candidate for the throne after Abdullah and Sultan is Prince Nayef, the powerful interior minister in charge of internal security forces. After Sultan fell ill, the king gave Nayef an implicit nod in 2009 by naming him second deputy prime minister, traditionally the post of the third in line. …

    Still, Nayef’s place in line is not certain. Modern Saudi Arabia was founded by King Abdul-Aziz in the 1930s, and after his death in 1953, the kingdom has been ruled by his sons — Abdul-Aziz had dozens of children from several wives. So far, five of his sons have ruled, each handing the throne to a brother or half brother with relative calm. The succession has generally been by seniority among the sons …

    Abdullah rose to the throne in 2005 after the death of King Fahd, though he had already been a de-facto ruler for half a decade.

    In an attempt to formalize the succession system, Abdullah in 2006 set up the Allegiance Council, a body that is composed of Abdul-Aziz’s sons and grandsons, who will vote by a secret ballot to choose future kings and crown princes. The council’s mandate will not start until after the reigns of Abdullah and Sultan are over. …

    The bigger question is what happens when the generation of Abdul-Aziz’s sons runs out. The youngest of the seven or eight sons often cited as having the stature and experience to rule are in their mid-60s …

  2. I wrote this a couple of years ago but I think it holds up pretty well:

    Saudi Arabia is not a nation state in the way we think of them in the modern world. It is a family possession. The current nominal ruler, King Fahd* is a son of the founder of the dynasty, ibn Sa’ud, who died 50 years ago. At the beginning of the 20th century ibn Sa’ud was a penniless desert bandito. His family had historic claims to the area in eastern Arabia around Riyadh and a historic alliance with the heretical and militant Wah’habi dynasty of imams. Ibn Sa’ud put together a tribal alliance, blessed by the Wah’habi, called the Ikwan. After WWI, he conquer the Hijaz, the western province of Arabia containing Mecca and Medina and displaced the British clients, the Husseini sherifs (See, Lawrence of Arabia), who were in turn rewarded with monarchies in Jordan and Iraq.

    Ibn Sa’ud, the ruler of most of Arabia, became the luckiest and richest man in the world, when American engineers found oil in his eastern provinces in the 1930s. When he died in the 1950s, the royal treasury, which was a chest kept in his tent, was stuffed with gold. His children have run the kingdom as their private property ever since.

    Here is the important fact. There is no theory of legitimate inheritance of a kingdom in Islam. The first born son of the first wife is not a more legitimate heir to the throne than the seventh son of the seventh concubine. Islamic regimes have developed ways of dealing with this problem. One is that many heirs were designated before the old king died. The Ottomans had the charming and effective custom of having the successor to the throne strangle all other then living male heirs to the throne with a silken bow string upon his succession. It was part of their success. Their decline began when they abandoned it.

    In years past, such as when ibn Sa’ud’s son and sucessor, ibn Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, was deposed in 1964 because of his mismanagement and wasteful spending, the family was able to act on a unified basis. Of course, it was a much smaller and more cohesive entity at that time. It is worth noting that the younger Sa’ud’s successor was his brother Faisal, who was, in turn assassinated by one of his nephews.

    The current king, Fahd* was born in 1922 and is also one of ibn Sa’uds sons. In 1995, he had a stroke which basically made him a vegetable. Before the stroke he had designated one of his brothers, Abd’allah (born 1923) to be the Crown Prince. After Fahd’s stroke, Abd’allah took active control of the kingdom. However, when Fahd named Abd’allah as Crown Prince, he also declared that the crown prince would not automatically succeed to the throne upon the death of the king, but would serve as provisional ruler until he, or another son or grandson of ibn Sa’ud deemed more suitable, was chosen by the family**. Reference

    When Fahd dies, Abd’allah will continue to rule the kingdom, but his succession will not be assured. He will be challenged by many others. Further, he is 82 years old. The ranks of the sons of ibn Sa’ud have been thinned by the years, but there are hundreds of grandsons and thousands of great-grandsons and great-great grandsons. It is possible that the succession will go smoothly, but it is also possible that there will be a civil war. At this point you should stop reading this and re-read Shakespeare’s histories of the War of the Roses.

    In Saturday’s NYTimes:

    “The crown prince himself has appointed a successor, Prince Sultan, who is second deputy prime minister and defense minister. A successor to Prince Sultan as second deputy prime minister would have to be chosen, which could open the way for a younger generation of Saudi royals to rise.

    “But Prince Nayef, the interior minister – who like Fahd, Abdullah and Sultan is a son of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdel Aziz al-Saud [ibn Sa’ud] – is widely favored for the position, thanks to his success in Saudi Arabia’s battle with terrorism in recent years, Mr. Alani and others said.”

    OTOH, Out of the thousands of male heirs of ibn Sa’ud, there is, no doubt, at least one who is saying to himself: “These senile old men will lead us into ruin. We need strong young leadership to survive the American assault on our world. I am that man.”

    As I said above, there is no primogeniture in the Islamic world. And history shows that even where there was, disputed successions have happened and have led to civil war.

    Like I said, read Shakespeare, not me.

    Indeed, it is possible that the civil war has already begun. One hypothesis, that I have entertained, is that some one or more princes, who want the Saudi throne — which after all is the richest prize in the world — have used (whether they believe in it or not) the ideology of the Wah’habi imams and the oil money that flows through the kingdom to raise a private army. Their intention was to drive the United States out of Arabia and use their private army to secure the throne. Whether they have further ambitions such as a Pan-Arab or Pan-Muslim state are their own counsel.

    In this view, we call the private army Al Qaeda. OBL is, or was until his incineration***, emir (in English, admiral) of this army. One reason the US invaded Iraq was to outflank Al Qaeda. Their counter was a series of attacks in the Kingdom last year. When that failed, Al Qaeda started pumping more money into the Zarqawi operation in Iraq, hoping to win the US election and stop the emergence of a shi’a dominated republic in Iraq.

    Al Qaeda has forced the Saudi establishment to take them seriously and to be nicer to US. But even if the Sunnis are suppressed in Iraq, Arabia will remain a powder keg.

    * Since succeeded by Abdullah. But the situation has not changed that much

    ** Se the article above. Abdullah kicked the can down the road.

    ***I am skeptical that he is alive.

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