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.


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. Muhammad bin Salman known as MBS (Mr. Everything to western observers) is too young to have any mark.  He is the favorite son and pulled directly on the center stage when his father ascended the throne.  In 2015, he was appointed Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince and in June 2017 jumped the line to become Crown Prince and heir apparent to his physically and mentally frail elderly father. King Salman broke the seven-decade long tradition of the family to appoint his own son as heir apparent.

MBS is obviously embarking on the unchartered desert tracts and deviating from family’s modus operandi explained by late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in August 2006 that

 ‘the world is going through obscure times in which the vision is unclear.  The Kingdom acts cautiously in such atmospheres’.  Almost all observers including friends of Saudi Arabia are of the view that MBS has thrown caution to the wind. He started on a good footing by focusing on economic reforms and opening some windows of cultural freedom.  This went well with Saudi youth who saw in young prince a hope for change. Militaristic and aggressive foreign policy with direct involvement in Yemen civil war and open conflict with Qatar jolted many.

Absolute monarchy is like a solar system.  Sovereign is at the center and inner circle revolves around it with few who can whisper in King’s ears. This inner circle is recipient of special favors which in case of Saudi Arabia is getting lucrative business contracts.  Those in outer circles benefit from the system but to a lesser scale.  There is re-arrangement of these circles with the ascension of new King. Saudi Royal family is cognizant of their precarious position in a volatile region and global change.  This has kept the family together and prevented open rupture despite disagreements and heart burns. Partisans of sidelined princes don’t want to lose their own privileges and quickly adjust their sails with change of royal pawns and rooks.

Absolute control is key in an absolute monarchy.  Key areas are kept within the family and these are called ‘sovereign portfolios’.  Interior, intelligence, internal security forces, foreign affairs and economic affairs are kept firmly in family hands.  Each prince has his own sphere of influence and controls a patronage network.  A ministry or special area becomes the fiefdom of a prince, his progeny and sympathizers.  ‘Commoners’ can run or even head technical ministries, education, health and information. King Sultan and his sons were not in the inner circle therefore the new regime moved quickly to get control of key sectors of governance to firm their grip on levers of power. Understanding this phenomenon is crucial to understand decisions of new King and MBS.

Seven brothers from Abdul Aziz’s favorite wife Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi known as ‘Sudeiri Seven’ held control over Saudi destiny for a long period.  The power of Sudeiri Seven declined when King Abdullah ascended the throne in 2005.  His mother Al Fadha bint Asi al-Shuraim al-Shammar was from another powerful Shammar tribe   Abdullah also had control of a major power center; Saudi Arabian National Guards (SANG).  He commanded SANG from 1962 to 2005.  In many Arab countries, army officers have overthrown their governments and this lesson is not lost on Saudi Royal family.   Fearing a coup from a robust and professional armed force, a countervailing force for internal security was considered essential.  SANG was formed with this objective.  SANG recruits are primarily from tribes and anyone who controls SANG is usually a major stake holder and Abdullah was in-charge of this important power center for a long period.

To balance the powerful Sudeiri Seven, Abdullah brought other half-brothers to his inner circle.   He developed close working relations with Badr, Abdul-Illah and Abdul Majid.  The mother of these three Haya bint Saad was also from the powerful Sudeiri tribe.  Other half-brothers were given key positions in SANG (Bandar bin Abdul Aziz Deputy Commander of SANG, Badr assistant to Deputy Commander of SANG and Mitib bin Abdul Aziz commander of SANG training college), head of Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Mukhabarat (Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz) and appointed Abdul-Illah governor of al-Jauf and Abdul Majid governor of Jizan.  Most of Sudeiri Seven are dead now and second and third generation of Sudeiri Seven has staged a dramatic come back in 2015 and now an important power center.

Various decisions by King Salman and MBS can be now viewed with this background in mind.  First to go were head of Mukhabarat Khalid bin Bandar bin Abdul Aziz, Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal and National Security Advisor Bandar bin Sultan. Twenty-two public bodies and councils were abolished and two super bodies encompassing all political, economic and security functions were established.  Council for Political and Security Affairs (CPSA) and Council for Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA) centralized all functions of the state.

Salman removed his half -brother Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz and appointed his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince.  Now, it is quite clear that Salman was using him as a stop-gap measure to pave the way for his son.  Muhammad bin Nayef was stripped off the court of Crown Prince which prevented him from consolidating his patronage network.  MBS was appointed Defence Minister and head of Council for Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA) enhancing his powers enormously in both security and economic spheres. In June 2017, when Muhammad bin Nayef was removed, MBS also got control of CPSA.

In January 2015, several Supreme Councils were abolished and all powerful CEDA under MSB was established.  The money bag of the kingdom, Private Investment Fund (PIF); the largest sovereign wealth fund of the world is also overseen by CEDA.  The twenty members of CEDA include several members of Council of Ministers and heads of many ministries. In 2016, oil minister and head of central bank were replaced.  In April 2017, King Salman fired head of Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) Lieutenant General Eid al Shalwi as well as ministers for civil affairs, information and technology ministers (all commoners).  A royal family member Major General Fahad bin Turki bin Abdul Aziz was appointed head of RSLF and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. Fahad had been allied with the faction of late Sultan bin Abdul Aziz who served as Defence Minister for several decades.

Immediately after ascension, King Salman removed two sons of Abdullah from their posts as governors (Mishaal was governor of Mecca and Turki governor of Riyadh).  Abdullah’s son Mutaib was Assistant Commander of SANG for military affairs before replacing his father as head of SANG.  In 2013, Chief of National Guard position was abolished and he was made Minister of National Guard.  A professional army officer at the rank of Lieutenant General was appointed operational commander of SANG.  SANG’s primary role is protection of Royal family therefore it was kept out of the Ministry of Defence as a counter balance to any military coup.  Mutaib was instrumental in modernization of SANG under direct U.S. supervision.  A mobile, mechanized force designed for quick deployment inside the country got enhanced fire power with addition of artillery.  Now a rotary wing force consisting of Black Hawks, Apache and AH-6 is added to SANG.  SANG is a major power center and MSB may try to change the traditional balance by either removing Mutaib from the powerful position or bringing SANG under Ministry of Defence under his direct control.  Powerful tribal groups have vested interest in the prestigious and separate power center of SANG and any misstep can generate deep suspicion among tribal leaders.

Sons of late Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz hold some key positions in different sectors.   The most famous son is Bandar who served as ambassador to Washington for over two decades.  He served as head of powerful Mukhabarat for two years (2012-2014) before becoming Secretary General of newly established National Security Council.  Bandar was the point man of King Abdullah for some foreign relations projects.  He also held the Syria file and responsible for arming Syrian opposition forces.  In 2015, Bandar was ousted and Syria project was handed over to interior minister Muhammad Bin Nayef.

Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz until very recently was a power center of his own.  He was Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs to his father for a long period (1999-2012) before becoming Interior Minister. He controlled the ‘deep state’ over long period expanding the internal surveillance network.  He was instrumental in dismantling al-Qaeda network in the kingdom with an iron fist after the bombing campaign of al-Qaeda inside the kingdom.  He had enormous powers including arrest, prosecution and free hand in tackling terrorism.  In this capacity, he also interacted with many foreign intelligence agencies and developed good relations.  His powers were diluted when a national security and anti-terrorism center was established under royal court.  Arresting power of religious police of interior ministry and finally power of prosecution was removed from interior ministry.  In June 2017, he was ousted from Crown Prince position and also removed from the all positions.  There was a shrewd maneuver to prevent any rallying of other siblings and nephews of Muhammad bin Nayef.  His nephew Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef was groomed for about six months under MBS at Ministry of Defence before bringing him to interior ministry to replace his uncle.

Muhammad bin Nayef was injured when a suicide bomber hiding explosives inside the rectum came to meet Muhammad and blew himself.  Even a prince is a human being and such encounters can affect physical and psychological health of the person.  If the flame of ambition is dampened then he will simply fade away.  However, if he is ambitious and bitter then he can stir some trouble.  There are already unconfirmed reports that he didn’t willingly accept the decision and was confined for some time.  Potential trouble will likely be limited to palace whispering as devotees usually don’t drown with their idols.  They simply adopt new ones installed in the temple. Conservative princes removed from positions of power as well as conservative clerics opposed to reforms can find in Muhammad bin Nayef a leader and that can create uncomfortable situations for new regime.

Another powerful group was three sons of late King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz (Saud and Turki from Faisal’s favorite wife Iffat and Khalid from Haya).  Saud served as country’s Foreign Minister for over four decades until his removal in January 2015.  Turki served as head of Saudi intelligence Mukhabarat for over two decades and later served as ambassador to Britain and Washington.  Saud and Turki were country’s link with foreign diplomatic corps and intelligence agencies.  Rise of Bandar bin Sultan under late King Abdullah as international liaison bypassing foreign ministry as well as Mukhabarat cut the power of Saud and Turki.  Khalid was governor of Asir province and in January 2015 appointed governor of Mecca.  Faisal clan has now taken the back seat in the current set up where the star of Sudeiris is ascendant.

Royal family’s relations with religious establishment are unique and have seen many ups and downs.  These relations go back to the original contract between puritan cleric Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab and founder of al-Saud dynasty, Muhammad bin Saud in eighteenth century and has been maintained to the present day.  Basic premise of the deal is the simple fact that clerics provide religious legitimacy to the house of Saud while in return they get to dictate the terms of the religious and social discourse of the kingdom.  Clerics also enjoy all the privileges due for official positions in different segments of the society.  Their role is prominent in educational and judicial branches of the government in addition to controlling most of the mosques.  Royal family has used religious legitimacy for continuation of their rule.  Religious establishment aligned with the royal family has provided this legitimacy; however this is not a settled issue in Islamic Jurisprudence.  Royal family has also cemented its relations with clerical family (called al-Shaikh) by marriage.  Alliance between royal family members and clerics has been successfully used in the past to tackle tricky question of internal struggle among royal family members and external threats.

The group of conservative clerics, judges and members of academia which already hold influential positions feels threatened from proposed reforms and this group has also launched their attacks against reformists.  This group fears loss of their privileged position in current system and usually accuses reformists as foreign agents who are endangering country’s Islamic values by stressing human rights, women’s rights and democracy.  Paralleling the petitions of reforms, conservatives have also launched their own petition campaign regarding various issues.

Clerical establishment is not monolithic and there are various shades of it.  A newly emerging group of clerics is the one which is not part of the established clerical structure and currently not holding any significant position in the powerful state sponsored religious structure.  This group is asserting itself and they are organizing themselves to renegotiate with ruling family a new contract.  This group wants to give limited support to the government in confronting extremist elements as well as pressure from reformists but in return want access to established patronage infrastructure.

The third force is the emergence of a new class of ‘rebel’ clergy.  This new breed of clerics is influenced by a number of movements and a small extremist group has increased its influence all over the country.  A complex set of domestic, regional and international factors is responsible for the radicalization of the Saudi youth.  This group is using religious symbols which are the core of legitimacy of the royal family.  This is the group which is striking at the very foundation of the royal family’s legitimacy.  First Gulf War of 1991 and stationing of foreign troops on Saudi soil was the turning point for the country and this single act severely compromised the legitimacy of royal family.  A small group of extremist clerics denounces current Saudi government as ‘apostate’ thus permitting use of indiscriminate violence against human and economic targets.  Cells of extremist groups have been active in the kingdom since mid-1990s.  They have attacked many government targets all over the country.  There have been assassination attempts on government officials especially security services.  The new phenomenon of Daesh will be a major challenge for the kingdom.  Severe degrading and possible defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria means that many foot soldiers will head back to their native lands including Saudi Arabia.

Traditional religious establishment is given the task to corner extremist elements ideologically and stem the tide of extremism emanating from the doctrines of ‘takfir’ (declaring a differing theological view as an act of apostasy) and ‘al waala wal baara’ (absolute loyalty to Muslims and complete avoidance of non-Muslims in all spheres).  It is logical that clerics aligned with ruling family will provide religious legitimacy and confront extremists only on the condition that their own role is maintained or even strengthened in the country.  This will make any constitutional changes, civil liberties and removal of restrictions on females very difficult.  This will be a very difficult task for new regime.

Several segments of Saudi society yearning for a change have adopted the path of petitions and gentle prodding of the royal family to move towards reforms.  A small extremist group has chosen the path of violence to force change.  Currently, this group is not powerful enough to topple the royal family but it surely has the capability for spectacular acts of violence shaking the confidence of Saudi citizens and international players.  Ideologically, they can shake the very foundations of the Saudi state thus setting the stage for gradual fragmentation.  Royal family can count on the support from a large segment of the society when tackling the extremist groups.  However, in return they have to loose grip on reins of absolute power and give some share to ordinary citizens in decision making process.  This road is a difficult one with possibility of serious conflict of interest among members of royal family and various groups of the country.

Monarchs usually don’t ask for honest opinion but want smiling and pliant supplicants at the table. Born in privilege where others no matter how talented simply serve at their pleasure makes it very difficult for a royalty to understand one’s limitations and seek wise counsel.  Most members of CEDA and CPSA are commoners that makes MBS absolute controller of all affairs.  It is not likely that any member will express his views candidly especially if he disagrees with the policies of the monarch or Crown Prince. Here lies the danger for the impetuous prince that may land his country in some serious trouble.

Lack of serious homework is evident from many decisions.  In 2016, salaries of civil servants and armed forces personnel were cut by twenty percent to save money.  There was criticism on social media and few months later, the decision was reversed.  There are no mechanisms in place to assess Saudi public opinion. Government didn’t explain the necessity of belt tightening and got spooked by even mild criticism and quickly reversed its decision. Many policies are formulated at whims and foreign consultancies linked with domestic groups present slick plans with great visuals and catchy titles with absolute no input from Saudi public. Government is uncomfortable with even allowing opinion polls to gauge public opinion on social and economic affairs.

Saudi royal family emerged on the country’s scene in unique circumstances and able to survive for at least seven decades.  However, Saudi state and society is very fragile.  There is no national foundation for the state and in view of very shaky foundations of the legitimacy of the rulers; a serious internal or external crisis can turn the applecart upside down.  If anyone has any doubt, he should look at Iraq, Libya and Syria.  If ever the opposition to the rule of al-Saud family gains momentum, it will be a fractured one consisting of sectarian, tribal or regional forces which can only fragment the society rather than uniting it.  In theory this arrangement may be advantageous to rulers as a national political movement seriously threatening their rule is very unlikely but in practice if meaningful reform is not pursued then only extremists will gain momentum.  Anarchy in neighboring Arab countries has shocked many Arabs and those living under autocratic rule may argue that an autocratic rule is preferable to anarchy.  There is an old traditional Muslim saying that ‘hundred years of oppression are better than one day of anarchy’.  However, this cannot be solace to Saudi royal family as status quo cannot be maintained indefinitely.

Current aggressive foreign policy posture of King Salman and MSB is a cause of concern for many Saudis and well-wishers of Saudi Arabia.  Direct involvement in Yemen conflict with no end in sight, upping ante against Iran while at the same time fracturing the traditional Arab alliance with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) due to direct conflict with Qatar is a cause of concern.  Saudi Arabia provided very bad optics by lavishing an opulent public spectacle of hosting U.S. President Donald Trump; the most disliked U.S. president in the world especially Muslim countries.  Combination of these factors is isolating Saudi Arabia and common Arab and Muslim on the street has a very low opinion of Saudi leaders.  Recent events of Arab world and fall of many modern pharaohs in front of television screens of millions of Arabs should be lesson of caution for every autocrat.

Each society is unique with its peculiar history, culture and evolution of its social and administrative structures and Saudi Arabia is no exception.  It is up to Saudis to decide what is best for them.  Even relatively new nation states have been able to overcome serious social and political problems and emerge as reasonably stable societies.  A forward looking and confidant citizenry can take Saudi Arabia from the zone of ambiguity and confusion to a stable and peaceful future.  Gradual progress of various reform projects, serious measures by royal family especially separation of government positions and personal business, public participation in decision making process, some freedom of expression, complete rejection of violent means and an honest debate and dialogue can transform kingdom into a vibrant society which is at peace with itself and its neighbors.

‘The Kingdom cannot remain frozen while the world is changing around us’.  Late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, April 2006

Hamid Hussain

New York

30 July 2017

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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5 years ago

SA political spring time? I wouldn’t bet on it especially after the failure of springs elsewhere in the region. Don’t know what Turkey has to gain by embarrassing SA as much as possible. Most likely result of pressure by Turkey and the West is that SA would feel vulnerable. Israel would present itself as a champion of SA monarchy and stability. Perhaps within 5 years SA would establish ties with Israel.

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