The recent visit of American President Biden to Saudi Arabia and requesting the Saudi Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to increase pumping oil to bring down global inflation is a veritable proof of the long distance traversed by the kingdom during one-hundred years of its existence.
Quite recently Biden termed MBS as a pariah yet he did eat his words indicating the changing realities in the Gulf region. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is apparently an anachronism in modern world but is also an economic giant with the size of its economy estimated ranked 19th in the world.
Being the leading exporter of crude oil, it is the repository of 260 billion barrels or twenty per cent of proven world oil reserves.
With instability prevailing in most countries that are known to be rentier states, Saudi Arabia can boast of a fairly stable governance system that has proved sustainable and
Saudi royal family has almost perfected succession practice despite being part of a region where ascension to throne has always been a contentious issue. The Saudi Kingdom is inherently inward looking attaching predominant importance to intelligence related armed internal security.
It depends on discreet military alliances and occasional placement of foreign troops for safeguarding its borders. The influence in the ruling structure has decisively shifted to intelligence and internal security. The fact however remains that the current head of the premier General Intelligence Directorate is a commoner, the second non-royal after Kamal Adham whose tenure of 14 years ended in 1979.
The apparently absolute rule of Saudi monarch is dependent on his developing a prudent consensus within his extensive family. The king presides over a cohort of about 15,000 members and keeps a balance between various branches and factions within the royal lineage. He heads the patrilineal branch, Al-Faisal, whose male members are accorded title of amir (prince).
The fountain of Saudi royal family was King Abel Aziz bin Abdel Rahman al-Saud who conquered the vast desert areas in 1923 to establish a state named after his ancestors.
Ibn Saud fathered 44 sons but 36 survived including Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah and Salman who all rose to become kings. The last-born son was Hamoud born in 1947 who died in 1994 at the age of 47 and after his death, Muqrin, born in 1943, became the youngest.
Ibn Saud had three wives from the powerful Al-Sudairi family of Nejd that is part of Dawasir tribe of nobility. Seven of his sons (Sudairi seven) were born to Hassa bint Ahmed Al-Sudairi, his 8th wife. Ibn Saud’s mother, Sarah Al-Sudairi, also came from Al-Sudairi family.
Outside the royal family the Sudairi Seven are regarded as the powerful faction that advocates alliance with the West and economic and social liberalisation.
The sibling-to-sibling pattern of succession was decreed by Ibn Saud by nominating Saud as Crown Prince and Faisal as Deputy Crown Prince. King Faisal created the cabinet system unifying the position of King and Prime Minister and applied it to succession thereby the position of first and second deputy came to apply to the succession to the throne as well as the cabinet.
As the Saudi monarchy has no definite method of succession therefore its governance structure is dominated by numerous political factions centered on a brother or coalition
of brothers prominent among them being Sudairi brothers, two of them became Kings (Fahd and Salman) and two served as Crown Prince (Sultan and Nayef).
Currently there are 13 surviving sons of Ibn Saud including King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin but no other than Salman and Muqrin are holding governmental positions although 8 of them are members of Allegiance Council of the state: Mishaal, Abdul Rahman, Mutaib, Turki II, Abdul Ilah, Mamdouh, Ahmed and Mashur.
Instead, the focus has shifted to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, 37 of them are considered prominent. Their ages range between 80 (Abdallah bin Khalid born in 1935) to 28 (Turki bin Salman born in 1987). Most of them are holding important official positions.
The principal characteristic of the junior members of royal family is their high level of education, mostly graduate studies in the United States or Europe.
During the 1980s, education, rather than seniority based, became the major source of influence for members of this generation. The older generation of grandsons of Ibn Saud, predominantly sons of former kings, spearheaded by four out of 8 sons of King Faisal became operational in 1970s and the most well-known of them was Saud Al-Faisal, the
longest serving foreign minister of the world.
Another prominent son of King Faisal is Turki bin Faisal who handled Kingdom’s intelligence affairs for almost a quarter of a century.
Four out of six sons of King Fahd served the Kingdom including Muhammad bin Fahd, married to daughter of late crown prince Nayef who till 2013 was Governor of Eastern province but is
now engaged in business. Saud bin Fahd remained deputy of Saudi Intelligence for over 20 years but is now inactive.
Sultan bin Fahd headed Saudi Youth Welfare and is now out of office. Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, the 52 years old favourite spoilt son of King Fahd was a member of cabinet and a state minster. Out of 8 sons of King Abdullah, 4 were engaged in state activities: Mutaib bin Abdullah, Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, Mishaal bin Abdullah and Turki bin Abdullah but are now out of job.
Out of King Salman’s 11 sons, the 37 years old Muhammad bin Salman is now the all-powerful crown prince, Faisal bin Salman, is Governor of Madinah, Abdul Aziz bin Salman is Assistant Minister of Petroleum and Turki bin Salman is Chairman of Saudi Research and Marketing Group.
The second son of King Salman, 59 years old son Sultan bin Salman, married to daughter of Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, has the distinction of being the first Muslim astronaut. His son Khalid bin Salman was now Saudi Ambassador in the US who has been replaced by Princess Reem bint Bandar who is the grand-daughter of late crown prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz who was also a Sudairi.
The sons of influential princes are also active in the Kingdom: out of 18 sons of late Crown Prince Sultan, five have attained high offices: Khalid bin Sultan, former Minister of Defense; Bandar bin Sultan the internationally known Saudi was Secretary General of National Security Agency.
A colourful character Bandar was born to a concubine Khizran from Asir province and was not treated well by his father. He gained respectability when King Faisal married his daughter
Haifa bint Faisal to him. He remained Saudi Ambassador to the US for 22 years.
The rest of the grandsons of Ibn Saud are governors of provinces: Saud bin Abdul Mohsin of Ha’il, Mishari bin Saud of Al-Bahah, Mishaal bin Majid of Jeddah and Faisal bin Bandar of Al-Qasim province.
The Saudi royal family has an uncanny ability to rally around in times of stress and it has evolved with times. The most potent sign of this evolution is the conspicuous lack of polygamous marriages amongst its members.
Led by sons of King Faisal- Muhammad, Khalid, Saud and Turki- the royal family members
have generally abstained from contracting multiple marriages. After the rise of Prince Muhammad bin Salman the balance between different factions of the family has been badly disturbed particularly after he took the unnerving step of incarcerating important members of the family on corruption charges that created a furore inside its inner sanctum but slowly has solidified his grip on power.