The Game of Thrones in Saudi Arabia – I
Al Saud family reins the political landscape of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family is essentially an oligarchy that has crafted into an absolute monarchy, ruled by consensus. The family thus continues to dominate the political architecture of the country with no other existing center of power. Estimated princes of Al Saud dynasty ranges from 7000 onwards, thus allowing the dynasty to have its presence at all government levels and holding the key ministries in the thirteen regional governorships.
The Saudi dynasty relies on several pillars – unity among its leadership, its reliance on energy revenues and relationship with the religious establishment which gives House-of-Saud its legitimacy. The death of crown prince Sultan and Nayef highlighted the important flaw in the Saudi system. It shows the second generation princes who have ruled the country for most of its eighty-year history are now few in numbers and it’s only the matter of time before the third-generation princes will step up to the leadership role. This will put uncertainty on a key pillar –unity amongst the leadership.
In modern Saudi Arabia’s history, the throne has changed five times and every one of those power transitions had its share of internal tensions as the royal family members competed for power especially the first two successions were very tense. King Saud was first to abdicate power to his crown prince and half-brother: Faisal. This was the key movement in the dynasties history because it established the rule of seniority and it became the main condition for the qualification. In the tribal-Bedouin Arab culture elder brother is like a father. So whoever is the oldest has the most credibility and legitimacy. King Faisal changed the monarchy in tribal Bedouin aspect but he also established informal rule in which a king had to be of leadership credentials. A decade later King Faisal was assassinated by one of his nephews which led his brother Khalid to became the next king. He was the oldest in line but his two elder brothers lacked the leadership experience. Ultimately the princes settled their differences for some compensation and this established the stability and durability of the kingdom. Once Khalid became the king he realized that he needed to shift the balance of power into various family branches and progenies.
The founder of the kingdom – Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud had 22 wives. He basically married to every family clan in the Arabian Peninsula and thereby established the legitimacy through rule over the clans. Having many wives also produced many sons and heirs. Abdul Aziz had at least 45 sons. Now, this huge family quickly divided itself into several factions. The most famous factions in the Saudi dynasty include – the family of Faisal, Abdullah’s faction and the Sudairi Seven. Every king tried to restrict this division in the dynasty by applying various rules and regulations. For example, King Faisal appointed a crown prince and also a deputy prime minister. The ladder essentially showed who was third in line for the throne. This process was adopted by all the other kings. Another example is when King Fahad introduced the basic law of government which among other things legalized the throne transition to the third generation. Now prior to this it was against the law for the king’s son to inherit the throne. King Abdullah further developed this system and in 2006 he formed the Allegiance Council which was composed of representatives from family factions and they have the task of electing a new king. This may sound good on paper but there is no reason to assume that candidates will honor the decisions made by a democratic institution. Saudi Arabia has no experience with democratic decision making, though it remains to be seen what role council will play in the future.
The shift from second to the third generation raises some concerns. There are many third-generation princes with important roles but only a handful has experience in foreign policy and national governance. Another issue is the reaction from other family clans. Shifting from second to the third generation is a big step and no family faction wants to be left behind. Equally important is the level of education – most second generation princes were very low educated and some were contented to settle for financial benefits instead of taking the public office. A few well connected third-generation princes include – Prince Mataib bin Abdullah from Abdullah faction. He holds the position of the commander of National Guard. Another important prince is the governor of Mecca – Khalid bin Faisal from the Faisal family. He has a strong reputation and a military background. Another famous from Faisal clan is Saud bin Faisal. He is the world’s longest-serving foreign minister. Some famous Sudairi clan princes are Khalid bin Sultan, Bander bin Sultan, Muhammed bin Nayef, Abdul Aziz bin Salman. All of them have distinguished careers and experience in leadership.
Rise of Muhammed Bin Salman to Power
Fond of iphones and notorious for a lavish lifestyle, 31-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is the firstborn son of the incumbent king Salmans third and most recent wife, Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan who worked hard to promote him as father’s successor. Prince Muhammad showed a constant presence at the side of his father, according to friends, relatives, associates and western diplomats. Eventually, Prince Mohammed held formal title as an adviser to his father, when he was governor of Riyadh and Defense Minister.
What led to the ousting of Muhammed bin Nayef and paved way to the Muhammed bin Salman’s rise as crown prince today is the systematic elimination of the rival power structures – for example, the weakening of senior royals and marginalization of King Salmans full brothers Ahmad, Talal and Muqrin by the father-son duo. King Salman also made religious clergy redundant who otherwise was consulted in the past when successions were hard to determine. The House of Saud had already eliminated the pressure groups that could have influence Kings succession and King Salman did the rest of the job by crushing and jailing every dissenting groups and eradicating human rights organizations. All this has led the father-son duo – the Salman’s, into a very powerful position with no institution to check and balance their power and the repercussions of such a situation are very far reaching.
Implications of the rise of Mohammed Bin Salman
Whether King Salman, who is also suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease transfers the power to his son immediately or not is hard to determine for now but what is certain is that the rise Muhammed bin Sultan will definitely transfer the internal as well external politics of Saudi Arabia.
Muhammed bin Salmans flirtation with the Neoliberal economy:
In 2017, the Saudis will begin a five-year national transformation program (NTP).The NTP falls within the larger framework of vision 2030 initiative which is the brainchild of Muhammed bin Salman. The NTP aims to rebalance the Saudi budget since last year the national budget deficit reached a record $100 billion due to oil hoarding by Saudis to crush Iranian market. For the first in the country’s history, Riyadh has moved to IMF and other international institutions to sanction $ 10 billion as a loan to finance its dilapidated economy. In 2017, Riyadh will cut public spending, for instance – the government plans to launch a new subsidy program which will generate $30 billion by 2020.Furthermore, Riyadh will seek to accelerate the privatization. The NTP also seeks to decrease unemployment and improve the domestic industrial military complex.
In order to convince Donald J Trump as the future king, Muhammed bin Salman travelled to U.S. several times and made promises to Trump about the huge investments in U.S. economy, buying more sophisticated weapons and maintaining the legacy of Saudi Arabia as the loyal and strategic ally of U.S. in the region.
Mohammed bin Salman holds absolute control on the soft power of the Saudi state. He patronizes the State run media and his foundation has held youth conferences on the use of Twitter and YouTube hoping that this would gain him the popularity in Saudi youth to legitimize his rule.
The ongoing air campaign against Yemen and the blockade against Qatar are the decisions of Muhammed bin Salman with the rationale that lavish money spending is all that can force these states to toe the Saudi line. The campaign, however, will continue in the days to come.
Soon after King Salman announced Muhammed bin Salman as the new crown prince, Israeli daily The Haaretz published an op-ed and called the development as “good news for Israel and U.S.” by quoting “Until now, Mohammed bin Salman has been good news for Israel and the United States, as his firm anti-Iranian positions make him an important partner – and not only in the struggle against Iran. Bin Salman agrees with America on the need to thwart Russian influence in the region; to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria; and to act firmly against ISIS and other radical organizations, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hezbollah. During the last two years, several Arab websites have reported that bin Salman also met with top Israelis.”
Up until now, the power transformation in Saudi Arabia has been slow which has given monarchy relative stability in the region but with the swift transition like this and the behavior of Muhammed bin Salman often described as “rash” and “impulsive” to his rival Muhammed bin Nayef who still holds significant stake in the deep state of the region – the doom of the country is on cards as has been also prophesized in the many prophetic traditions.
Part II of this essay will deal with the Saudi Arabia: The birth of a Monarchy and its foreign policy.
Shafa’at Wani is a graduate student of International Relations at Academy of International Studies, JMI, New Delhi.