Dynamics of the Saudi Royal Family

From Dr Hamid Hussain

This piece written in summer of 2017 is a backgrounder for Kingdom at a crossroad.  This will help in understanding the background to my upcoming piece about challenges faced by the Kingdom in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi murder. Stay tuned.

Hamid

Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family

Hamid Hussain

 ‘In a western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections; in a monarchy, you lose your head’.  Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

 

 In the last two years, Saudi Arabia has gone through many changes.  Absolute monarchies are not easy to decipher.  There are many opacities and it is very difficult for any outside observer to have a real sense of events.  Two main factors are very limited expression by Saudis in their own country and opaque decision making process in the form of decrees with flavor of palace intrigue.  A Saudi will not express his honest view in the presence of another Saudi due to fear factor.  In view of these limitations, the perspective of an outsider has severe limitations.

Current system of governance of the country is based on accession to throne of one of the sons of the founder of the country Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman al-Saud (d. 1953).  He works with other family members especially senior princes, Council of Ministers (most of whom are also royal family members) and Council of Senior Clerics in running day to day affairs of the country.  There is a fair amount of competition among all these groups about various issues and King carefully balances his act to avoid open conflict.

In January 2015, Salman bin Abdul Aziz ascended to Saudi throne after the death of his brother Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.  He came quite late into the complex inner power circle of the al Saudi royal family.  He was appointed Governor of Riyadh province in 1962; a post he held until 2011 when he was appointed Defence Minister.  For five decades, his main influence was in business and media through his sons and a half-brother (Sattam bin Abdul Aziz).  His sons controlled different business and media interests.  Abdul Aziz was Assistant & Deputy Minister of Oil and now Minister of State for Energy Affairs, Faisal owned Sharq-al-Awst newspaper and appointed Governor of Medina in 2013.  Sultan is a pilot and worked at Saudi Ministry of Information.  He now heads tourism commission with the rank of a minister.  Khalid is also a fighter pilot and in April 2017 appointed ambassador to Washington.  Turki, Saud, Rakan and Nayef are little known and involved in various business ventures.  Fahad; a business tycoon and Ahmad with media interests died in their 40s from heart disease.  Continue reading “Dynamics of the Saudi Royal Family”

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Muslims have always known how weird Saudi Arabia is

I’m not a big fan of Hasan Minhaj’s “Millennial smug” style of comedy. What it really reminds me is Brad Stine’s “Christian comedy.” It’s aimed toward ingroups and comes off as tone-deaf and stupid to outgroups. So you know what you’re getting into.

That being said, as someone who is Muslim Minhaj has always “gotten” the issue with Saudi Arabia. Most Muslims I have known, from very conservative Salafi types to irreligious cultural varieties, have strange and strong attitudes toward Saudi Arabia. Even the most conservative often have mixed attitudes, because Saudi Arabia may sponsor Salafism worldwide, but no one can deny that the ruling family are hypocrites in their private practice.

Believing Muslims though have to admit that the Saudis are currently the guardians of Islam’s holy sites, and, the kingdom provides a great deal of money for various Muslim causes as well as Muslims more generally. And of course, Saudi Arabia has been a source of employment for many Muslims from outside the kingdom for many decades.

The fact that we are “having a discussion” about Saudi Arabia as if there is a discussion to have is a testament to the power of money in public discourse, and how one can buy elite complicity.

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Why Kill Jamal Khashoggi? (A personal view from Dr Hussain)

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Someone asked my two cent worth opinion on ongoing saga of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. More informed people have commented on the subject and many details are still murky. Based on my own work on the Kingdom’s power dynamics in the past, following is may take;

Thanks. With time, we change and our thoughts also evolve. This may be the case with Mr. Jamal Khashoggi and he may have been genuinely convinced that some kind of people’s participation in government is the way forward. However, we need to keep in mind the broader context as this incident is related to struggle inside the royal family. Khashoggi held some progressive views by Saudi Arabian standards related to extreme austere code of Wahabbism. However, he never questioned the legitimacy of the rule of al Saud family. He advocated increased consultation with population on important issues. He was employed by many government newspapers and any significant alternative view no matter how mild is simply a career ending move. He was not a dissident but mild critic of some policies of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman such as blockade of Qatar, Yemen war etc.

There are many Saudis in exile who are much harsher critics of royal family but why Khashoggi? More important to remember is his links with members of royal family who have been sidelined by the meteoric rise of the mercurial Prince Muhmmad Bin Salman (MBS) in 2015. Government’s view is published by a number of influential newspapers (Arab News, Sharq-ul-Awst etc) run by Saudi Research and Marketing Group. Owner of this group is Prince Turki Bin Salman. Khashoggi worked for some of these newspapers in the past. He also worked with former intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal and billionaire Waleed Bin Talal. He served in some advisor capacity to Turki projecting his softer image to the outside world. In 2015, Waleed opened a satellite channel Al Arab in Bahrain and in this venture partnered with Bloomberg News. Khashoggi was to be the star kid of Al Arab. This channel lasted mere eleven hours on air before it was shut down by Bahrain; a close Saudi ally and dependent on Saudi forces on its soil to protect its royal family from the restless Shia majority population.

MSB started grand purge on two fronts. One front was to sideline powerful brokers in royal family such as Crown Prince designate Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef; former interior minister, Prince Mitib Bin Abdullah; former head of Saudi National Guard (SNG). Head of SNG is a powerful position as SNG is royal family’s insurance policy against army coup. SNG recruits on tribal basis and head inserts his loyalists at various levels of positions. The second front was to weaken the financial muscle of some princes. This resulted in famous/notorious Ritz Carlton saga of billionaire princes hauled up there until they coughed up billions to get their limited freedom. Waleed was the prized prisoner of Ritz Carlton; the world’s only five star jail. Members of both groups cannot leave the country. On the other hand, other family members who have kept their heads down in the tent like Prince Turki are allowed to travel. With this in background, alleged rumor of an assassination attempt on MBS by his guards raised the fear factor by several degrees. Some reports suggest that most of his inner circle of security is now manned by foreigners.

Where Khashoggi fits into this picture? He was the window of these disgruntled royal family members to the outside world. Everybody in Washington who wanted to know what was happening in the Kingdom would knock at Khashoggi’s door. This was the main threat that MBS feared that angry royal family members may attempt to make some kind of deal with Washington to pull the royal rug from under his feet. A close study of MBS personality suggests that he acts rashly without thinking through and no one around him would even suggest an alternative thought. Hence, a very sloppy operation which is not even an intelligence operation. A rag tag team of guards, special forces people and a forensic doctor was to emulate a Mossad style overseas hit a la 2010 Dubai saga of assassination of a Palestinian operative.

Looking at the fall out of the operation, Khashoggi’s own words seem prophetic that ‘Saudi brand has been severely damaged’. What will be MBS likely response? The old Arab bedouine tradition is that when a big dust storm come down furiously (haboob), the Arab ducks down in his tent covering his head and wait until it passes away. For the next few weeks, MBS will be spending more time in his $500 million yatch parked in red sea than in his palaces. The only suggestion one can give to MBS is the words of one his own elders late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz; “a friend is someone who tells you the truth; not someone who believes in you’.

“Man’s history is waiting in patience for the triumph of the insulted man.” Rabindranath Tagore

Regards,
Hamid

Postscript:

Follow up intelligent questions from well informed people were inevitable thus a follow up. I wandered a little bit further as my personal quest of learning about military and conflict is to paint the horrible picture of the killing fields so that we can all avoid filling more graves.

Thanks Sir. You are correct. Trump will give him cover in view of personal/business relationship. However, there is a little bit shift in other power centers. In senate, recent vote to approve munitions to KSA was 53-47; a significant shift against KSA. If in mid-term, democrats take house of representatives, then there will be little more heat. In the long run, KSA is important and MBS cannot be pushed aside without arrangement with alternative leadership from royal family. This usually takes time. However in short term, single point agenda of getting Iran is making things complicated and they don’t want to quarantine MBS/KSA at this stage.

Anti-Iran camp of current administration coupled with almost messianic change in Bibi Netanyahu personality where he thinks his historic role is to strike nuclear assets of Iran is the possible ‘escape hatch’ for MBS. If Bibi wins in elections called early then watch for who he picks for IDF chief; who is retiring by the end of the year. In 2009-15, IDF COS, heads of all three intelligence agencies (Mossad, MI & Shin Bet) pushed Bibi back on military strike against Iran. This was complemented by Obama administration warning to Israelis that they will be alone in the mission with no military or diplomatic cover. Bibi wants a security team that will not second guess his mission. Bibi has covered a lot of ground by appointing his former national security advisor Yossi Cohen as head of Mossad, a more mellow head for Shin Bet and a new director of MI. The only chip left is COS. Two top contenders (Yair Golan & Aviv Kochavi) are their own men especially Kochavi is considered a ‘prince’; very well respected and highly professional man who cannot be bullied. Bibi may go for one of the two juniors ones for the post. If two conditions are met; first Bibi wins elections and still PM and then he picks one of the juniors as IDF COS, then I’ll put chance of Israeli strike on Iran around 50%. To hold the Arab bag, they will need MBS with General Sisi playing the second fiddle. Water is too muddy in the middle east to read tea leaves.

MBS is following the footsteps of all autocrats; thinking that they are invincible and normal rules don’t apply to them even if they see things like Saddam caught like a rat and Qaddafi dragged on the streets. This they watched with their own eyes and not something read in history books of decades or centuries old events. Power has its own logic not comprehended by commoners like us.

I can only think about words of Voltaire when I closely review personalities of three main actors on the stage for coming production; Trump, MBS & Bibi Netanyahu. “If you are desirous of obtaining a great name, of becoming the founder of a sect or establishment, be completely mad; but be sure that your madness corresponds with the turn and temper of your age. Have in your madness reason enough to guide your extravagances, and to not forget to be excessively opinionated and obstinate. It is certainly possible that you may get hanged; but if you escape hanging, you will have altars erected to you”.

As far as bankrupt leadership is concerned, Arab poet and philosopher Nizar Qabani has summed up nicely;

Every twenty years

Comes to us a gambling man

To stake our country and culture

And resources and rivers

And trees and fruits

And men and women

And the waves and the sea

At the gambling table

We die; broken, hated

Cursed like dogs

While our philosopher in his shelter cogitates destruction into victory

In the post-world war II period, in mad search for security, humanity has invented modern and more lethal killing machines to find itself less secure and living in fear. A whole new model of peaceful co-existence emerging from the wretched of the earth is needed. War mongers are busy 24/7 while those who wish peace are sleeping. They need to wake up, shake dust of their clothes and reach to the ‘other’ over the head of their leaders. The question for present generation is whether they will continue to fight the wars of their grandfathers and fathers on the altars of religion, nation etc. or choose a new path.

“Ishmael, my brother hear my plea

It was the angel who tied thee to me

Time is running out, put hatred to sleep

Shoulder to shoulder, let’s gather our sheep”

Shin Shalom, an Israeli Jewish poet

Regards,

Hamid

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Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family

From Dr Hamid Hussain

‘In a western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections; in a monarchy, you lose your head’. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

In the last two years, Saudi Arabia has gone through many changes. Absolute monarchies are not easy to decipher. There are many opacities and it is very difficult for any outside observer to have a real sense of events. Two main factors are very limited expression by Saudis in their own country and opaque decision making process in the form of decrees with flavor of palace intrigue. A Saudi will not express his honest view in the presence of another Saudi due to fear factor. In view of these limitations, the perspective of an outsider has severe limitations.

Current system of governance of the country is based on accession to throne of one of the sons of the founder of the country Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman al-Saud (d. 1953). He works with other family members especially senior princes, Council of Ministers (most of whom are also royal family members) and Council of Senior Clerics in running day to day affairs of the country. There is a fair amount of competition among all these groups about various issues and King carefully balances his act to avoid open conflict.

Continue reading “Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family”

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The Qatar Crisis

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Qatar’s Dilemma
“Everyone is critical of the flaws of others, but blind to their own.” Arab Proverb

On June 05, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and also placed land and air embargo. This move came as a surprise to many as this immediately followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s high profile visit to Saudi Arabia where most heads of Muslim countries gathered. The simmering differences between Qatar and its Arab neighbors reached the boiling point resulting in the June shock therapy.
Qatar is a small country but in the last two decades it has gradually shown its presence on the international diplomatic scene. Qatar began its foreign policy as a broker of negotiations and mediator of conflicts. This combined with softer image of involvement in humanitarian and cultural interactions increased its profile and earned genuine respect. However, in the last few years, it got directly involved in armed conflicts resulting in negative fallout. Continue reading “The Qatar Crisis”

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