Saturday, January 24, 2015

The House of Saud

The announce­ment by Saudi state TV, of the death of King Abdul­lah bin Abdu­laziz, aged 91, will bring to an end the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion princes who have ruled the King­dom for most of its 80 year his­tory. It now ush­ers in a third gen­er­a­tion of princes who num­ber in the thou­sands. We are repub­lish­ing this 2012 analy­sis which analysed the House of al-Saud
Saudi Ara­bia, with the world’s largest oil reserves, is a crit­i­cal piece in the jig­saw of inter­na­tional order. With the pass­ing of King Abdul­lah, the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion princes who have ruled the coun­try for most of its 80 year his­tory is effec­tively at an end rais­ing the prospects of poten­tial insta­bil­ity due to a power strug­gle amongst the rul­ing family.
Mod­ern Saudi Ara­bia was a cre­ation of the Sykes-Picot Agree­ment in 1916,  a secret under­stand­ing between Britain and France defin­ing their respec­tive spheres of influ­ence after World War I. King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (Ibn Saud) led a band of war­riors to cap­ture his ances­tral city of Riyadh from a rival fam­ily in 1902. Britain signed the “Treaty of Darin” with Ibn Saud that incor­po­rated the lands of the Saud Fam­ily as a British pro­tec­torate in Decem­ber of 1915.[1] The west­ern coastal region, Hijaz, was taken next by Ibn Saud along with Mecca and Med­ina in 1925. He then uti­lized his 22 mar­riages to shape and con­trol his vast king­dom. But it was his close alliance with the US that helped him ward off threats towards the nascent state. He signed a con­ces­sion agree­ment with Stan­dard Oil of Cal­i­for­nia (now Chevron) in 1935, which included hand­ing over sub­stan­tial author­ity over Saudi Oil fields. Stan­dard Oil later estab­lished a sub­sidiary in Saudi Ara­bia called the Ara­bian Amer­i­can Oil Com­pany (Aramco), now fully owned by the Saudi government.
There are three key pil­lars that the house of Saud rests upon, allow­ing it to play a major role in the region.The first of these is the dom­i­nance of the royal fam­ily in Saudi pol­i­tics. The Saudi royal fam­ily is effec­tively an oli­garchy that has crafted an absolute monar­chy, ruled by con­sen­sus. As a result the fam­ily con­tin­ues to dom­i­nate the polit­i­cal archi­tec­ture of the coun­try with no other cen­ters of power exist­ing. The throne of Saudi Ara­bia changes hands through a power trans­fer that remains firmly within the Saud clan. Ibn Saud is believed to have had at least 70 chil­dren, with at least 16 sons still alive. They and their off­spring form a core of about 200 princes who wield most of the power. Esti­mates of the total num­ber of princes range any­where from 7,000 upwards. The family’s vast num­bers allow it to con­trol most of the kingdom’s impor­tant posts and to have an involve­ment and pres­ence at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment. The key min­istries are reserved for the royal fam­ily, as are the thir­teen regional governorships.
The Sauds know their own gov­ern­ing elite is dete­ri­o­rat­ing. Saudi Ara­bia is a state that, as its name attests, is based on loy­alty not to a ter­rain or an idea but to a fam­ily. Abdu­laziz Ibn Saud, who estab­lished the coun­try along with his son Faisal bin Abdu­laziz (the third monarch), dom­i­nated the first gen­er­a­tion of Saudi rulers. The sec­ond gen­er­a­tion has been dom­i­nated by the “Sudeiri Seven” — the seven sons of Ibn Saud’s favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudeiri — who over­saw polit­i­cal life, often as kings, giv­ing coher­ence to the fam­ily and thus to the rul­ing power struc­ture. But that group is dis­ap­pear­ing. The cur­rent crown prince, Salman, the sixth old­est Sudeiri, is 76. In the third gen­er­a­tion, 19 grand­sons will com­pete with 16 sur­viv­ing sons of Ibn Saud on the Alle­giance Coun­cil, appointed in 2006 to for­mal­ize the suc­ces­sion process. And there are many more grand­sons out­side the council.
The sec­ond pil­lar has been the numer­ous and com­plex patron­age net­works estab­lished to con­sol­i­date con­trol of the oil rich nation. The descen­dants of  Muham­mad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th cen­tury founder of the Wah­habi school of thought is only sec­ond in pres­tige to the royal fam­ily with whom they formed a mutual sup­port pact and power-sharing arrange­ment nearly 300 years ago.[2] This pact main­tains Wah­habi sup­port for Saud rule and thus uses its author­ity to legit­imize the royal family’s rule.[3] The most impor­tant reli­gious posts are closely linked to the al Saud fam­ily by a high degree of inter­mar­riage. The reli­gious schol­ars have pro­moted the royal fam­ily as defend­ers of Islam through their inter­na­tional efforts in con­struct­ing mosques. In sit­u­a­tions in which the pub­lic deemed cer­tain poli­cies of the royal fam­ily ques­tion­able, the schol­ars would invoke fat­was to deflect any dis­sent. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Ara­bia issued a fatwa oppos­ing peti­tions and demon­stra­tions in the mid­dle of the Arab Spring; his fatwa included a “severe threat against inter­nal dis­sent.”[4]
The third and final pil­lar is the country’s min­eral wealth, which is con­cen­trated in the royal fam­ily and the hands of a few other well-positioned fam­i­lies. The roy­als receive stipends of vary­ing amounts, depend­ing on their posi­tion in the blood­line of King Abdul-Aziz.  Pos­sess­ing the world’s largest oil field has allowed the royal fam­ily the means to estab­lish and main­tain patron­age net­works that helped build tribal alliances.
Saudi Ara­bia has con­structed its for­eign rela­tions to pro­tect and enrich the monar­chy and in turn the fam­ily of Saud. Put within the con­text of its immense min­eral wealth and mil­i­tary riches, Saudi Arabia’s role in the world is largely lim­ited to a mere sym­bolic lead­er­ship due to hav­ing the two holy Islamic sites, Makkah and Mad­ina, within its bor­ders. Saudi Ara­bia has played a role in a hand­ful of regional issues such as host­ing nego­ti­a­tions for the two state solu­tion and being a host­ing ground for US bases. It is dom­i­nated by the royal fam­ily who have main­tained an inter­nal bal­ance, which keeps them in power. Saudi Ara­bia was a nation cre­ated by the Saud fam­ily for the Saud fam­ily and as another one of its kings comes to his end in all like­li­hood there will be a power strug­gle by var­i­ous groups of princes whose num­ber is anyone’s guess.
[1] Wilkin­son, John C. (1993). Arabia’s Fron­tiers: the Story of Britain’s Bound­ary Draw­ing in the Desert. pp. 133–39.
[3] Al-Rasheed, Madawi (2010). A His­tory of Saudi Ara­bia. pp. 16.
[4] A fatwa from the Coun­cil of Senior Schol­ars in the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia warn­ing against mass demon­stra­tionsAsharq al awsat News, Octo­ber 2011, retrieved 1 Octo­ber 2012,

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