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Inside Saudi Succession

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Factors Affecting Saudi Succession are a Family Affair

October 12th 2009

Arab Topics - King Abdullah2
King Abdullah

The process by which government decisions are made in Saudi Arabia remains obscure despite continual analysis by diplomats, oil executives, foreign business executives, and others. The more well-informed analysts believe that the number and identity of the princes and nonroyal participants varies, depending on the issue. Important decisions are made by the king alone but usually once he feels a consensus has been reached. (The ulama-the senior Muslin clergy—have a leading role in making religious decisions, but since they depend on the king for their appointments, they are probably reluctant to oppose a royal family consensus. They can dither, however; when the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized in 1979, the ulama reportedly took thirty-six hours to approve the use of military force.)

When consensus remains elusive, decisions are delayed. This was the case in the late 1990s when Crown Prince Abdullah was seeking to involve foreign companies in the development of the kingdom's natural gas resources. The decision was postponed and the proposal eventually dropped after opposition from the petroleum company Saudi Aramco and the Saudi ministry of oil, assumed to be backed by Abdullah's rivals in the royal family. (The exception that proves this rule is said to be Kind Fahd's decision to ask for U.S. military support after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Other senior princes, including then Crown Prince Abdullah, wanted time to consider other options, but they were overruled by Fahd.)

This decision-making process owes its origins to the traditional way decision are made in nomadic Bedouin Arab tribes—the so-called bedoucracy—in which the ruling sheikh consults with the elders of the tribe. The process is not one of equality, but it generally ensures loyalty and acquiescence rather than protest and revolt.

Succession, however, is a special decision that tolerates little delay. According to convention, a new Saudi king relies on the other princes to confirm his position by swearing an oath of allegiance. The ulama must then declare the new king an imam (Muslim leader). The declaration can only be made on the basis of a fatwa indicating that the decision is legitimate. The approval of the nation's religious leaders not only authenticates the succession on religious grounds but also serves as a reminder of the historically close relationship between the House of Saud and the dominant Wahhabi version of Islam in the kingdom.

In theory, a danger exists that the ulama will be independent in its judgment and issue a fatwa bequeathing leadership outside the normal line of succession, but this has never happened. The ulama issuing the fatwa comprises members of the Supreme Religious Council appointed by the king. This group has never taken a view contrary to the wishes of the senior members of the family, as part of what appears to be an unwritten bargain in which the ulama can largely do as it wishes on religious issues so long as it does not tread on areas the royal family sees as essential for national security. (It was perhaps Kind Saud's mistake not to have appointed religious leaders who were sufficiently loyal. This might have prevented the fatwa issued again him in 1964 that legalized his deposition.)

Thus, the choice of king is effectively the preserve of the royal family, although the individuals involved and the relative size of their “vote” has, at least in the past, varied substantially. Standard books on Saudi Arabia refer to a decision making body loosely known as the royal council or ahl al-aqd wa'l-hall (literally, “Those who bind and loosen”). In reality, this group appears to be an informal body of senior, important princes, wherein the weight of an individual's votes varies with age, closeness of relationship, and government position. In the mid-1080s diplomats based in the kingdom said this group comprised sixty-five people. This will change in the future if the Allegiance council, announced in 2006, takes on the role of helping select future kings, at least at the level of crown prince. By 2009, the number of living sons of Ibn Saud had fallen to twenty. Prior to the establishment of the Allegiance Council, the number of these princes with crucial votes in choosing future leaders would probably have been fewer than ten. The Allegiance Council, with thirty-five members, has effectively given voting power to princes or their sons who were otherwise thought to have been of little consequence within the al-Saud family.

The role of the royal women. Despite a general belief to the contrary, the women of the House of Saud play a role in the politics of succession in at least three ways. First, they are the true “Masters” of their homes; behind the privacy of the palace walls, they are thought to let their husbands and sons know their views in a forthright manner. Second, intermarriage within the al-Saud means that alliances can be built up between different branches, depending on the degree to which a wife has maintained strong links to her original family and is liked within her new family. Third, at least in the case of Kind Fahd, meetings occurred regularly with the women of the Al-Saud so that the king could explain his views and listen to those of the women. It was yet another example of the importance attached to building consensus.

The role of the wider family. During the years of crisis in the reign of Kind Saud, some of Ibn Saud's brothers were influential in ensuring that the ulama could issue a fatwa deposing Saud. By the time Fahd became king in 1982, all of his father's brothers had died. But a role had opened up for the sons of Faisal, the one king since the death of Ibn Saud who was respected universally within the family. Apparently, one of Faisal's sons, Saud al-Faisal, was at the gathering when Fahd received the oath of allegiance, a presence perceived as opening the door to future involvement by Ibn Saud's grandsons in the choice of king and crown prince.

An unknown is the extent to which other branches of the family, other than the sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud, have any voice at all. One of the legacies of more than 250 years of history is the emergence of multiple branches on the family tree, at varying distances from the main line of inheritance and thus from power. A key strength of the House of Saud for the past century has been its ability to unite the family's various branches in the common purpose of running the country, rather than openly feuding about which branch is paramount and where the line of succession should run. Although many members do not have a direct role in government, their unity and support are crucial in maintaining rule by the al-Saud.

Of additional importance is the sheer number of princes in these branches (distinguished by the honorific “HH”—His Highness—rather than the “HRH,” meaning “His Royal Highness,” conferred on the sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud). The main line of the House of Saud numbers in the hundreds (King Saud alone had more than fifty sons), but the cadet branches, sometimes known as the collateral branches, multiply that figure by many times. In the early 1990s, an estimated twenty thousand males were entitled to call themselves “prince,” with the prefix HH or HRH. (Confusingly, Saudi tribal leaders can also use the title amir [prince] but not the honorific prefix.)

The senior of the cadet branches, and nominally the titular senior branch of the family, is the al-Saud al-Kibir, the descendants of Saud, the elder brother of Ibn Saud's father. In 1903, the son of this elder brother contested the right of Ibn Saud to become the head of the al-Saud. The feud was only smoothed over when Ibn Saud arranged for his sister Nura to marry the most powerful surviving member of the clan, Saud al-Kabir. Since then, the al-Kabir clan has become an influential branch of the Saudi royal family, but it tends to be kept away from political power.

Another branch is the Bani Jiluwi, descendants of the younger brother of Ibn Saud's grandfather Faisal. The Bani Jiluwi allied themselves with Ibn Saud to defuse the threat posed by the al-Kabir clan. Abdullah al-Jiluwi served as Ibn Saud's deputy commander and helped conquer the eastern region of Arabia. The members of a third branch, the al-Turki, descend from another of Faisal's brothers. A fourth branch is the Thunayyan, who descend from a brother of Muhammad, first ruler of the al-Saud, and who have the additional legitimacy of providing the ninth ruler, Abdullah. A fifth branch, the al-Farhan, descend from one of Muhammad's other brothers.

These cadet branches were represented in a family council established by then Crown Prince Abdullah in 20000. Its eighteen members included Abdullah and Prince Sultan along with a spread of princes across the family tree. At the time, there was speculation that the council would be involved in a decision to allow then-ailing King Fahd to retire and be replaced by Abdullah. A different line of speculation held that the council would have a private role, internal to the royal family, perhaps tackling vexing issues like establishing guidelines for royal involvement in business and allowing al-Saud princesses to marry commoners. Perhaps significantly, Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh province, known as a family conciliator, was a member. Interior Minister Prince Nayef was not named to the council, but any thought that he was being sidelined was blunted by his public statement at the time that the council would have no political role.

What Makes a King?

Age. Whether Ibn Saud ever said his sons should success him by order of birth (given fitness to rule) is doubtful. But since the al-Saud respect age more than almost any other attribute, order of birth remains the preeminent qualification.

Being a good Muslim. Ibm Saud is said to have decreed that a future king must be a good Muslim. By this he is supposed to have meant that the person should not drink alcohol. Yet this condition would narrow the field considerably, and so it has been ignored.

Having a Saudi mother. Ibn Saud supposedly said that a king should not be the child of a foreigner. This is a probably reference to the fact that many of his twenty-two wives were not Arab. (In keeping with Islamic tradition, Ibn Saud had only four wives at any one time.) Excluding the children of Ibn Saud's foreign wives would substantially limit the number of sons still eligible to be king. The mother of Bandar bin Abdulaziz was Moroccan, while the mothers of Miqrin and Hidhlul were Yemeni. At least these mothers were Arab: the mothers of Mishal, Mitab, Talal, and Nawaf were Armenian. Excluding these princes reduces the pool of those now eligible from twenty to just thirteen. Another ways of looking at the need to have a Saudi mother is the importance of having maternal uncles (akhwal) to back ones' candidacy.

Experience. Whereas King Khalid had neither experience nor interest in governing, administrative capability is increasingly cited as necessary. Many of Ibn Saud's sons have had government experience, but their competence has varied. Those with current official positions are few. Apart from Abdullah Sultan, and Nayef, office holders today are Mitab (minister of public works and housing), Abdulrahman (vice minister of defense), Ahmad (ice inister of Interior), Salman (governor of Riyadh province), Sattam (vice governor of Riyadh province), and Miqrin (head of General Intelligence Directorate).

Acumen. It is not surprising that Saudis want kings with prudence and a steady touch. However, with the exception of Faisal, who combined these qualities with intellectual ability, acumen has often been more evident in the public relations presentation of kings than in reality.

Popularity. Since consensus is central to Saudi decision making, the ability to achieve it rates high. The simplest measure of popularity is the style of majlis—a forum for listening to ordinary people's concerns—held by a prince. Is he generous? Is the food good? Is there plenty of it? Will favors be granted? Sultan reportedly gives a good majlis, but Saud al-Faisal has not been known to hold such gatherings. (Perhaps this is an indication of his total lack of ambition to be king, despite being named often by foreigners as a possibility.) A prince with ambition likes to know what the people are thinking, and he gets a feel for that by allowing ordinary people to see him.

Simon Henderson is Baker fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Program, from which this article is adapted.

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