Rise and fall of Saudi Arabia's al-Tuwaijri family

Rise and fall of Saudi Arabia's al-Tuwaijri family
The Tuwaijri family in Saudi Arabia has lost its status since new king Salman bin Abdulaziz took to the throne.
4 min read
28 January, 2015
The Tuwaijri lost its power when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz died [AFP]

In one of his first royal decrees since becoming king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz replaced the head of the royal court, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, with his son Mohammad bin Salman.

This move effectively ended the role played by the Tuwaijri family in Saudi politics. Before Khaled, the position had been occupied by his father Abdulaziz al-Tuwaijri.

The nationalist who created an empire

     Tuwaijri shied away from the media limelight. Some even doubted his existence because they had heard of his influence but had never seen him.

The Saudi National Guard, one of the three main branches of the country's armed forces, was initially a weak institution.

It was transformed under the leadership of the late King Abdullah’s from 1962 to 2010. But Abdullah's initial appointment to head the guard was first seen as an attempt to appease the then prince with an official position. Stuck in what he thought was a dead-end position, Prince Abdullah met Abdulaziz al-Tuwaijri by chance and was taken by the articulate and educated man. Tuwaijri advised the dissatisfied prince to stay in his position and develop the National Guard.

According to Saudi military historians, Abdullah transformed the National Guard into a modern and sophisticated force. The prince not only developed its military capabilities, but also ensured its members were provided with top-class housing, medical care and education. This transformed the National Guard into an independent empire loyal to Abdullah. But the success of the National Guard can be credited to Abdulaziz al-Tuwaijri, who was Prince Abdullah’s close confidant and special advisor.

Abdulaziz al-Tuwaijri was known as an Arab nationalist. Unlike other Saudis, he loved Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt from 1956 to 1970. During Saudi – Egyptian tensions over competing regional projects, Tuawijri demonstrated his excellent political abilities by meeting Nasser and openly supporting his unionist goals, while also retaining the support of the Sauds.

During this time, and despite his growing fame as an influential figure in Saudi politics, Tuwaijri shied away from the media limelight. Some even doubted his existence because they had heard of his influence but had never seen him. His behind-the-scenes work enabled him to support Abdullah bin Abdulaziz path to becoming Saudi Arabia's sixth king.

Despite operating behind the scenes, al-Tuwaijri’s intellectual and cultural leanings came to the fore through the annual Jenadriyah Culture and Heritage Festival organised by the National Guard under Tuwaijri's supervision since 1985. Tuwaijri invited leftist, socialist, nationalist and modernist poets and intellectuals to perform at the festival. This enraged Saudi conservatives who attacked him in their publications and religious rulings. When Abdullah was selected as crown prince Al-Tuwaijri surrounded him with “liberal” advisors, further enflaming conservatives and certain elements within the royal family.

The Barmakid complex

Under the Abbasid dynasty, the Barmakid family rose to great prominence as advisors and viziers to the Abbasid caliphs. Their power and subsequent wealth and ambition grew to a point that threatened caliph Harun al-Rashid who reigned from 786 to 809. Rashid subsequently campaigned against the family.

In 2002, an anonymously written leaflet began circulating in mosques and on internet message boards describing the Tuwaijri family as the "Barmakids of the age". The leaflet also attacked Abdulaziz al-Tuwaijri’s intellectual leanings, and blamed him for the nationalists and socialists occupying advisory positions in the crown prince's court and their western liberal influence.

Three years after the public campaign began against him, Abdulaziz al-Tuwaijri stepped down as head of the crown prince's royal court and nominated his son Khaled, his deputy, to replace him. Khaled continued his father's policies and, later that year with Abdullah becoming king, now in charge of the king’s royal court.

Unlike previous heads of the royal court who were executives that carried out and implemented the king's decrees, Khaled helped the king formulate policies. He is credited with creating the post of deputy crown prince, to which the last son of the kingdom's founder was appointed, a move that denied many ambitious princes their chance to ascend to the throne.

Unlike his father whose main enemies were the conservatives, Khaled's influence over the king also drew the animosity of members of the royal family. Prince Khaled bin Talal was the first royal to publically attack Khaled on Twitter. But other royals and "royal whistle-blowers" quickly followed suit.

Observers of Khaled's career realised he worked in a dangerous environment and could fall from power at any moment. That moment happened when his protector, the late King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz, died.

Today, Khaled’s only hope is that the crown prince, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz will appoint him to his court. However, considering that Khaled avoided direct confrontations with Saudi royals during King Abdullah’s life, it is very possible he will instead choose to leave the country.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.