Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are their own greatest threat

Written by  Published by:Shiite News
Published in Saudi Arab
Saturday, 20 June 2015

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia executed its 100th prisoner so far this year – putting it on course for a record number just six months into the year. As in any country, the executions are as much political statement as they are punishment, and although it is difficult to pin down a reason for the rise, the actions of a new King and a conservative judiciary to assert themselves are both partly to blame. The message is that Saudi Arabia will react strongly to any issue it deems a threat – from the crisis in Yemen to the recent suicide bombings in its eastern province.
The executions betray a truth about Saudi; they are in the midst of one of the greatest periods of internal and external crisis they have faced since the first Gulf War, or the Al Khobar bombings of 2004. In times like this, the careful stewardship of the King and the wider ruling family, the Al Saud, has come under strain but always emerged intact, guided by the pragmatism of successive leaders and the survival instinct of the family. That stewardship will prevail again. But perhaps the greatest threat to the family comes from within—a result of the administrative actions of the new King Salman.
Salman took over following the death of his half-brother, Abdullah, in January. Abdullah was already 81 when he took power; his successor is 79, the power shifting between the ageing second generation of Al Saud leaders. But at the end of April, King Salman decided to disinherit the Crown Prince and expected heir to the throne, his 69-year-old half-brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, to enshrine the long-awaited move to the third generation—the younger members of the family who, it is hoped by Saudi watchers, will begin liberalisation of the country—with the appointment of his nephew Muhammad bin Naif. The move to the third generation had to be made at some point, to resolve the vexed question of succession in the country, but it has nonetheless fired the starting gun over the internal politicking of the family, as different factions seek future access to power. That has the potential to trouble the family in a way that the crises on their border cannot.
Palace intrigue is not unusual for states built around families, but in Saudi Arabia the effects are intense. The Al Saud are embedded in every part of the country and state machinery. They are a family that buries their secrets well but, like all powerful families, there is internal strife and politics, as different parts of the family vie for power and funds, always revolving in a slow constellation around the unmatched power of the King. For watchers of this enigmatic state, how the intrigue plays out provides the few opportunities to guess where the country is heading.
For over 60 years since his death in 1953, the country has been ruled by the progeny of King Abdulaziz, founder of the state of Saudi Arabia. Rule has passed down the seniority line of his 36 sons, the majority from different wives, each wife taken by conquest or intermarriage from the prominent tribes of the Arabian Peninsular. Each King has left his imprint on the country, and attempted to embed his bloodline in the power structures.
The intra-family conflicts that this may have engendered have traditionally been kept between the brothers in a family code of omertà. Pragmatism is the most obvious motivation. The sons of Abdulaziz have lived through all the recent history of the Middle East; they understand that power can be fleeting, and that splits in the family can quickly became the cracks that swallow them. So they place the survival of the Al Saud above the overt pursuit of their personal interests, especially when they are paid off by the King, either through funds or promises of influence. This blood brotherhood is the critical dynamic of the second generation Al Saud. They were, and are, a set of brothers, raised with one man above them, as father and leader.
The third generation are not. They represent a far looser and larger clustering of family factions, all gathered under the banner of the Al Saud. Each has their own ambitions like their fathers before them, and so the same instability and tension that was kept close between brothers has been passed down to distant relatives; what we are left with is a plurality of power across the family. The senior grandsons of Abdulaziz can see that power is now up for grabs—it will no longer pass down the established lines of sons but must be shared across the different families, from Muhammad bin Naif, the newly-appointed Crown Prince, onwards.
The Al Saud is an enormous, unwieldy family. It is near impossible to map but may consist of up to 20,000 individuals organised in a vast network of alliances and power relationships across the country, each with the ultimate aim of guaranteeing access to the patronage and power of the King. The senior sons of the third generation will be scrambling to build new Al Saud dynasties, with the attendant strains and stresses that brings—only one can have true power, but each will fight for it. And as the other parts of the family jockey behind those they have backed, so the tensions resonate across the family, and across Saudi Arabia.
The forerunners for power are built around two branches of the family; Salman’s own, led by his favourite son Muhammad bin Salman, now Deputy Crown Prince, and the family of his deceased brother, Naif, led by his son, Muhammad bin Naif. This now dispossesses large parts of the family of their own political ambitions, particularly the sons of previous Kings Abdullah and Fahd. Some of these sons have powerful portfolios—particularly Abdullah’s senior son Mitab, as Commander of the Saudi National Guard. The public acknowledgement from the Allegiance Council (a body set up by King Abdullah to represent each brother in deciding on future kings) that Salman’s decision was accepted by the “majority” of the family is a crucial one: clearly there was dissent, and that can only grow as key members of the third generation, such as Mitab bin Abdallah, Muhammad bin Fahd, Khalid al-Faysal and senior sons of previous kings begin to wonder how they will maintain power and influence, and what they can do to ensure it.
The real test will come when Salman dies. The balancing game is fine. Muhammad bin Naif, the expected next in line, owes nothing to Muhammad bin Salman (his deputy and son of the current King), certainly not his position. But equally, Muhammad bin Naif has no son to promote ahead of him. Will he seek to favour another branch of the family, as he was once favoured by Abdullah and Salman? What will he do if he feels Muhammad bin Salman is too much of a threat to his position as King, or as Crown Prince? And how will he bind in the sons of other branches of the Al Saud, particularly those of the former kings, Abdallah, Fahd and Faysal, who are increasingly dispossessed?
These questions are critical to the future of the Al Saud. But the stability promised by handing the kingship to brothers is gone—now that the precedent for disinheriting is open, and that we have moved to the third generation and their family branches, it will be extremely hard for any King to hand over rule to another part of the family who may not be so willing to hand it back.
Whether Muhammd bin Naif chooses to disinherit Muhammad bin Salman or not, he will have to play some form of family politics in choosing a new Deputy Crown Prince and sorting out the positions of the various branches of the family. As he does so, family competition will intensify and the unitary nature of the Al Saud will weaken—and with it, the coherence of the Saudi state and its policymakers as they fall prey to the family politics and competition over key institutions. In an environment like that, we should not expect liberalisation or reform—as it is hoped the third generation will bring—but refuge in stability and tradition. Should these tensions emerge, the pact between the Al Saud and the conservative Wahhabi clergy will remain alive and well, reform will be stalled and patronage will dominate politics; there is a threat to the future of Saudi Arabia if the family splits. Muhammad bin Naif has proven above this so far. He is an intensely clever and assiduous man, and a real leader. But how he will act once in power is hard to tell, as is the reaction of the wider family when he starts to build his dynasty.
Although future kings will still need the wider family, the latest move likely marks the end of the Al Saud as a unitary body, and the fracturing of family groups within it, with the bin Naifs leading the way.
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