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Feature Article
The Triumvirate: A Sudayri Resurgence? (Part Two) 2015-09-16
The elevation of the king's nephew and son to the roles of crown prince and deputy crown prince, respectively, has rekindled talk of the re-emergence of the al-Sudayri faction in royal family politics. But should the shifting succession dynamic be framed in such terms?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Part One of this series looked at the power dynamics within the royal family during the years of King Abdallah's reign and his ambiguous, often tense, relationship with the al-Sudayri. The "Sudayri Seven", as the Sudayri brothers were known, were comprised of the late King Fahd and the current king, Salman, and siblings Sultan, Abd al-Rahman, Nayif, Turki and Ahmad. The brothers were born between the years 1921 and 1940 to a favorite wife of the Kingdom's founder Ibn Saud, named Hussa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri. The Sudayri family, which traces its origins to the Wadi Dawasir region of the Najd near Riyadh, is one of only two families with whom the Al Saud traditionally intermarry (the other being the Al al-Shaykh). Hussa herself came from a distinguished line, which included her great-grandfather Ahmad al-Kabir, a nineteenth-century general and later Governor of al-Ahsa province, and father Ahmad bin Muhammad, who served the Al Saud family both in military operations and as governor of a number of provinces. Many of her brothers also held governorships. Her great-aunt Sarah bint Ahmad al-Kabir was also the mother of King Abd al-Aziz, and there is a long list of Sudayri women who have married important princes.

Hussa married the future king Abd al-Aziz in 1913, at the age of 14, and bore him one son, Sa'd, who died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. The couple soon divorced, however, and she married his brother Muhammad. But Abd al-Aziz regretted their separation, and asked his brother to divorce her so he could take her back. Hussa remarried Abd al-Aziz in 1921, and ultimately bore a total of seventeen children, including four daughters who died in infancy. Growing up, the Sudayri boys felt a natural affinity, which Hussa encouraged, because of their maternal connection. Until her death in 1969, the boys were accustomed to meet weekly for lunch at her palace in Wadi Hanifah outside Riyadh. Abd al-Aziz apparently had great affection for Hussa, being one of only two wives he never divorced to make room for others.

With the exception of the eccentric Turki, all the Sudayri brothers went on to hold key positions of power and influence, notably Sultan and Nayif, who each served as crown prince before their death, and of course kings Fahd and now Salman. Abd al-Rahman was Deputy Defense Minister until 2011 (though he seems to have done very little), and Ahmad was the highly-regarded Deputy Minister of Interior for over three decades, and Minister for about five months in 2012 before he was unceremoniously dumped. The years of al-Sudayri ascendancy correspond roughly to the seventies and eighties, when their grip on the key organs of administration seemed secure, and it was simply assumed, without much in the way of proof being considered necessary, that the brothers were acting as a cohesive unit, with the aim, ultimately, being a Sudayri lock on the succession. Once a Sudayri king sat on the throne and swept away any opposition, the coast would be clear to establish an alternate dynastic line, with the kingship now passing either from (Sudayri) brother to brother, or from a powerful Sudayri king to his own sons. There was precedent of course, with the line of succession they had themselves inherited, which saw the line pass through the sons of Abd al-Aziz, who had emerged as the most powerful of the sons of Abd al-Rahman bin Faysal.

Some of this, of course, was the natural desire of Saudi watchers to see some stability in succession in the world's largest oil exporter. With royal family politics opaque at best, the thought of an internal power struggle among various (real or imagined) factions which could result in a serious rupture, even an outright civil war (with Abdallah controlling the National Guard and Sudayris in command of the Army and Interior), was just too alarming to contemplate. It was reassuring to think that, at least, one faction was strong enough to ensure this did not come to pass.

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