Ever since the Al Saud clan established in 1932 the kingdom to which they gave their name, the exercise of power in Saudi Arabia has been shaped by the intrigues and intricacies of royal politics. But never before has this internal struggle had such far-reaching ramifications for the region and beyond as it does now.
With some 22,000 members, competition is rife within the world’s largest ruling family — a dynamic set in motion by the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz Al Saud, as he sought to secure the role of his 43 sons as future rulers, and sustained by King Abdullah’s succession strategy today.
A Saudi prince’s status is based on his mother’s tribe and his alliances with other male royals. From the outset, power was grouped on the basis of coalitions of full brothers, the most significant of whom were the “Sudeiri Seven,” Abdul Aziz’s sons with his wife Hissah Al Sudeiri. With the assassination of King Faisal in 1975 by his nephew, the Sudeiri branch of the family became its dominant faction. Fahd, the eldest Sudeiri son, ruled for 23 years, the longest reign for a Saudi king.
Abdullah’s succession in 2005 posed a direct challenge to the Sudeiri brothers’ authority. Indeed, following Fahd’s death, Sudeiri power was reduced significantly, with only Crown Princes Sultan and Naif holding key roles.
Abdullah does not have a full brother. To block a Sudeiri restoration, he initially grouped together a number of marginalized, like-minded princes. Though Abdullah’s “Allegiance Council” was subject to Sultan’s control, its inclusion of Abdul Aziz’s remaining sons and the sons of his deceased brothers — in particular, King Faisal’s sons — gave the non-Sudeiri princes an institutional base of power.
The shift in power from the Sudeiris to King Abdullah and his sons was accelerated by the death of the two Sudeiri crown princes within a period of eight months. After Sultan (who served for decades as Minister of Defense) died in October 2011, Abdullah froze the Allegiance Council. Following the death of Naif (who was Minister of Interior for 37 years) in June 2012, he removed Abdul Rahman, a Sudeiri, and appointed Salman as Crown Prince.
Salman, too, is a Sudeiri, but his appointment represented a significant change, partly owing to his relative youth (78 years old). Indeed, perhaps to satisfy the desire of the United States, a key ally, for a new generation of Saudi rulers, the 92-year-old Abdullah passed over all of his octogenarian brothers and appointed the youngest, 65-year-old Prince Migrin, as Second Deputy, putting him first in line to the throne after Salman.
Nearly a decade after succeeding Fahd, Abdullah has attained absolute power, and he is using it. For example, he has strengthened the National Guard’s position by raising its status to that of a ministry, led by his eldest son, Mit’ib.
As a result of these and other changes, including the removal of key officials, such as Deputy Commander Badr Bin Abdul Aziz, the Guard’s power is now equal, if not superior, to that of the army.
Likewise, it is believed that Abdullah’s son, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdul Aziz, will soon replace Saud al Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister. Abdullah also appointed his son Mish’al as Governor of Najran, before raising Mish’al’s profile further, in December 2013, by naming him governor of Mecca, in place of Khalid Al Faisal.
Meanwhile, Abdullah’s son Turki has been made deputy governor of Riyadh.
Whatever Abdullah’s consolidation of power might mean domestically, the implications for the region are profound. In personalizing Saudi politics to the extent that he has, Abdullah has also personalized the making of foreign policy. That has meant subordinating meritocracy to kinship and loyalty, which has inevitably weakened the regime’s capacity to respond effectively to regional developments.
To be sure, the king and his courtiers are much relieved that the Arab Spring did not lead to the creation of functioning democracies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, or Syria. Better still, from their perspective, rival Islamist regimes that emerged proved to be either incompetent and easily overthrown (as with Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi), or without appeal to others (as in Tunisia).
Nevertheless, the Arab Spring revolutions did undermine the pillars of the regional status quo, whose construction and maintenance the kingdom had underwritten with its petrodollars. The uprisings ousted reliable old allies like Hosni Mubarak, and turned regimes such as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s into implacable enemies.
Saudi Arabia’s initial response to the fracturing of the regional order was to increase its support for those of its allies — Jordan, Lebanon and Bahrain — that were still standing, and to turn the Egyptian Army into its proxy, leading to the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government.
Since 2013, Syria has become the main focus of Saudi Arabia’s attention in the region. Saudi rulers regard the battle between Assad and his opponents as part of the kingdom’s existential struggle against its main adversary, Iran. Thus, Saudi Arabia has become the primary source of financing and weapons for Sunni rebel forces fighting Assad’s army, which is backed heavily by Shia Iran and its proxy, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia.
Despite its unusually activist foreign policy, the kingdom has failed to bring down Assad’s regime, partly owing to U.S. President Barack Obama’s refusal to enforce his “red line” concerning the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
As a result, Saudi rulers no longer feel constrained to wait for U.S. approval of their actions — or even to refrain from acting against American interests.
Saudi Arabia feels a deep fear of abandonment by the U.S., and is acting accordingly. The political transition at home, it seems, is being matched — for better or worse — by a diplomatic transition in the kingdom’s stance toward the region.
Mai Yamani’s most recent book is “Cradle of Islam.” @ 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)