Daggers drawn in the House of Saud

Daggers drawn in the House of Saud
Analysis: The smooth accession of Salman conceals an intense internal struggle between Saudi Arabia's rulers, cemented by a succession system that pits brother against brother and promotes factional fighting.
8 min read
30 January, 2015
The king is dead... let the power struggles begin [AFP]

The smooth accession of Salman to the Saudi throne conceals a ferocious internal power struggle in the ruling family, which is alluded to in a few subtle - but telling - acts.

Salman has dismissed Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the most faithful colleague of his predecessor, Abdullah.

Salman has gone on to place members of his own faction in positions of power, appointing his allies as deputy crown prince, minister of defence and the chief of the royal court.

In Saudi politics, such moves imply a two-fold change: the recognition of one faction to the detriment of another, and the rise to power of princes from the third generation of the Saud family.

But far from solving the thorny issue of succession and distribution of power, this new configuration risks aggravating tensions within the ruling family, especially as power will soon shift generations.

Understanding the issues surrounding succession requires understanding the historical context.

New Saudi king Salman stamps authority with government shake-up. Click to read more.

Succession has been the Saud family's Achilles heel since the 19th century, essentially due to the adelphic system of rule they adopted - in which one brother succeeds another as ruler.

According to this horizontal form of power transfer, all brothers in the reigning family are potential sovereigns-in-waiting, and fortune alone decides between them. In other words, the most powerful among them wins.

This often leads to crises of succession, especially during transitions between generations. Each claimant tries to monopolise power, and transfer it to his descendants.

Such crises in Saudi Arabia have led to the assassination of two emirs (Turki and Mishari), the toppling of three (Faisal, Khaled and Thunayan), many wars of succession - the most recent of which lasted about a quarter of a century - and numerous foreign interventions (the Ottomans and the Rashids).

The crisis over succession was the main cause of the dynasty's fall in 1891, but even after its re-establishment in 1902, King Abdulaziz (1902-1953) failed to change the rules and save the kingdom from fratricidal infighting.

He contented himself instead with eliminating all the other branches of the family, in particular his brothers and first cousins, to leave the field open for his own children.

Emerging faction

Even if the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia named his Saudi son as the apparent heir, he was careful to instate a multi-domination system: effectively dividing the state between a number of his sons, ensuring the multiplication of centres of power.

At the same time, the adelphic succession system meant all 34 of his sons were potential claimants to the throne when he died in 1953, leading to yet another political crisis.

The first years of King Saud's reign (1953-1964) were characterised by a power-sharing deal between the eminent members of the family. But Saud wanted to reconnect with tradition - pushing his brothers aside to favour his sons.

Very quickly a family coalition was set up, managing to depose him with the blessing of the Ulemas in 1964, after six years of bitter fighting.

Faisal's reign (1964-1975) was marked by the confirmation of multi-domination in which each prince-minister, prince-governor and prince-chief executive carved out a fiefdom to be managed autonomously. While this system allowed the family to keep strict control over the parts of state machinery, it nevertheless caused significant dysfunction, and a tool had to be put in place to overcome the problem.

An informal body was formed: the royal family council. In a very short time, it took hold as a centre of decision-making.

In order to carry weight in this council and elsewhere, numerous important princes created factions. These were made up of family members and their clients from different classes of society.

     In a very short time, the royal family council took hold as a centre of decision-making.

Though he has moral and legal supremacy, the king himself must appeal to a faction of princes controlling different sectors in order to have a margin for manoeuvre and to make his voice heard in the decision-making process.

In other words, the sovereign was just the first among equals, making the Saudi regime a family collegiality.

And so, Faisal leaned heavily on the faction led by his half-brothers Fahd, Sultan, Nayef, Salman, Abd al-Rahman, Ahmed and Turki. These seven brothers (of the same mother) are called the Sudairis, after their mother’s surname.

Their influence continued to grow, especially after the accession of the eldest, Fahd (1982-2005), to the position of crown prince in 1975 and then to the throne. Even though the Sudairis had to accept their half-brother Abdullah becoming crown prince in 1982, there was everything to suggest they would monopolise power.

But the cerebral embolism that Fahd suffered in 1995 slowed this ascension, and the decade of Abdullah's semi-regency allowed the other factions to re-establish competition.

More sheikhs, more problems

In order to stand up to the political demands following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuweit in 1990, King Fahd was forced to adopt a certain number of measures, including the enactment of a Basic Law in 1992. This law was the first official document giving a legal framework to the question of succession.

And yet, this law posed more problems than it resolved. Paragraph B of article five states that "power is transferred to the sons of the founding King Abdulaziz and to his grandsons. The most capable among them is recognised as King".

On the death of Abdulaziz, the succession concerned 34 people. This law opened the competition to hundreds.

Abdullah's accession to the throne (2005-2015) put an end to this modus vivendi with the Sudairis, allowing the power struggles to flare up once again.

The new king used all the resources at his disposal to attempt to break up the monopoly of his rivals and to preserve the multi-domination system.

In 2006, he created the "allegiance council" to identify the country's future monarchs - its main purpose being to prevent another Sudairi reaching power after the crown prince Sultan, especially as he was ill at the time.

But Abdullah's manoeuvring failed due to the fighting force of his half-brothers and their allies (who control, among other things, the defence and home ministries, the most significant provinces of the kingdom and the main media outlets).

The king was forced, without consulting the "allegiance council", to name Nayef, the strongman of the Sudairi faction, as second deputy prime minister in 2009, that is to say, future crown prince. In doing so, he effectively nullified the council.

The deaths of Sultan and Nayef in 2011 and 2012 seemed to restore hope to Abdullah, even though it was Salman, another Sudairi, who became crown prince.

In a throw of the dice he created the function of deputy crown prince, naming his youngest half-brother, Miqrin (who is not a Sudairi), in the role.

There were at least two reasons for doing this: blocking the Sudairis from succession to the throne, and slowing down the transition between generations to allow his sons the time to prepare properly. With this in mind, he named his son, Mutaib, as minister of the national guard and two other sons as governors of important provinces.

Shiekhing it up

Abdullah was not the only one pushing his offspring to take centre stage. For several years, the princes of the third generation had already occupied key positions. Events even gathered pace after 2011 when a transition between generations began to emerge.

But the glory days of the old monarchs were not yet over, and when on 23 January Abdullah died, it was 81-year-old Salman who succeeded him, with 72-year-old Miqrin becoming crown prince.

It may well be that if these two reign for long enough, the third generation claimants, who are today mostly in their 50s and 60s, will have reached the same age.

This destructive gerontocratic cycle could carry on reproducing in this way, without the break-up (natural or otherwise), that seems increasingly necessary for tackling internal and regional challenges.

Just a few hours after rising to the throne, Salman named his nephew and strongman of the regime, Muhammad bin Nayef, as deputy crown prince, and his own 35-year-old son, Mohammad bin Salman, as the minister of defence and chief of the royal court.

These two nominations indicate a transition is taking place, and the Sudairis' desire to monopolise power in the face of opposing factions, who - though weakened - maintain a significant potential for creating problems.

The process embarked upon by Salman promises to be a painful one, particularly as disputes within the Sudairi faction have already begun. Salman had no scruples in toppling his full-brother Sultan's sons from the defence ministry in order to make way for his own son, who now has the means necessary for competing with his first cousin, Nayef.

The battle between the two men promises to be long and hard.

While Nayef might have the advantage of experience and an existing professional and social network, the youngest of the regime enjoys an advantage in terms of age. With every day that transition to the next generation is delayed, the 35-year-old increases his chances of one day becoming king.

Whatever the scenario, the question of succession will remain a bone of contention within the House of Saud, and will probably provide the main window of opportunity for change.

The weakening - or even collapse - of the multi-domination system, which is costly at all levels, is necessary, leading eventually to the establishment of a primogeniture system.

This is the price Saudi Arabia will have to pay in order to confront internal socio-political demands and its regional responsibilities.

This is an edited translation of an article originally published in French by our partner, Orient XXI.