Thursday, August 28, 2014
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The Last of the Sudeiri Seven

LONDON – 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, likeminded 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 foreign policymaking. 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 al-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 US 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 US approval of their actions – or even to refrain from acting against American interests.

Saudi Arabia feels a deep fear of abandonment by the US, 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.

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  1. CommentedJohn Primm

    To me the last graph is the most important. Regardless of what the princes do, the fact is that they see the US walking away from 60 years of alliance and therefore must do whatever they need to to secure their state. While I have disliked them buying our military and diplomatic cover all these years, I am appalled at yet another Obama foreign policy 'reset' that leaves our allies and friends wondering what next. Syria's implosion and Iran's becoming a nuclear state are making the Wahhabi's fear for their lives.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    The conservative Wahhabi kingdom Saudi Arabia is ruled by a frail gerontocracy. The seven Sudeiri princes, in order of age - Fahd, Sultan, Naif, Abdul Rahman,Turki, Salman and Ahmad, were sons of King Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud) and one of his favourite wives, Hussa bint Ahmad al-Sudeiri. Ibn Saud had some 45 recorded sons by as many as 32 wives. A dominant mother, al-Sudeiri insisted that all of her high-profile sons dine with her once a week at home, where they compared notes, jockeyed for position and arranged to divide the spoils. Fahd, the eldest, eventually became king in 1982 and his brothers had long dominated the kingdom. Sultan and Naif were crown princes and died "within a period of eight months".
    There were others who were powerful too, particularly their half-brother Abdullah, who controlled the National Guard, a rival military force to the army. Abdullah became king in 2005. The brothers knew that they couldn't stop Abdullah ascending. Yet they did all they could to preserve their power.
    The Sudeiris didn't relish Abdullah's accession, in part because he acquired a popularity that Fahd never had, showing a disposition which boded ill for their whole style of rule. He radiates warmth and simplicity, talks to ordinary people and is close to the Saudi tribal way of life. But he has never shared the severely puritanical view of Islam of his country's Wahhabi religious establishment.
    Above all, he is honest and free of scandal. The kingdom is in crisis and badly needs the kind of leadership that Saudis hope Abdullah has. He enjoys a reputation for incorruptibility and won respect for his drive to stamp out graft.
    He has favoured some reforms in sync with Saudi traditions in order to defuse potentially explosive tensions. One of his responses to the Arab Spring had been to use financial sweeteners to keep the Saudis happy. He also promised Saudi women the vote in future elections to municipal councils. In 2013 he appointed 30 woman to the consultative 150-member Council.
    The question is, what Crown Prince Salman, a Sudeiri would do, once he becomes king. Saudi Arabia is a country, in which one doesn't know where the ruling family ends and the state begins. Jobs for Saudis mean essentially government jobs and oil is the main source of revenues. With a widening gap between princes and commoners, waste, corruption, inefficiency, the habit of dependence on foreign labour, the time has come to heed the demands for socio-economic and political reforms.

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