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Feature Article
2017-08-17

Changing Family Dynamics: End of an Interlude?

As traditional assumptions about the place of consensus, seniority and compromise in domestic family politics are cast aside in the face of new realities, any discussion of succession must take into account the evolving dynamics. The more recent history of the Al Saud, in fact, and the impression drawn of of stability, practicality, and quiet competence, may, in the larger scheme, prove more the exception than the rule.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The surprise elevation of Muhammad bin Salman, the king's son, to the position of crown prince is only the latest shock in a near-constant stream of head-turning episodes to take place in the secretive Kingdom. Where formerly the rate of social and political change was glacial, the pace now takes even seasoned observers by surprise. Hardly has the news of the latest upheaval had time to sink in, when a new round of turbulence strikes. Muhammad has been cast as an impetuous and brash, if brilliant, young upstart, unashamedly ambitious and unafraid to trample on anyone in his way. Few had him on their radar, though it was obvious from the favor shown by his father King Salman that Muhammad was on his way. From the beginning, he made a splash, launching into what has become an extended military campaign in Yemen and taking on an unprecedented amount of work across all sectors of government, whilst still overseeing, for all practical purposes, who had access to Salman. It came as no surprise that he ruffled more than a few feathers among the family, many of whom had been more than comfortable with the status quo. But his quick rise to prominence, then heir apparent, cemented his position and left naysayers to fume in silence.

Clearly, old paradigms no longer apply in succession matters. In theory, such a career trajectory as his was always possible; in practice there were always enough counterweights, in the form of disapproving family elders, competing factions, and the overall desire to preserve family unison and harmony, to prevent any one prince from concentrating too much power in his hands. King Saud, in the 1950s, famously attempted to set up a parallel line of succession through the strategic positioning of his sons, but was quickly shot down. Yet, the present system itself, with co-opted family branches and former rivals working towards a common goal, is a relatively new phenomenon, and a more encompassing view of the family history shows the decades in the aftermath of the Kingdom's founder, Ibn Saud, to have been something of an anomaly.

The early years of the First and Second Saudi States of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a story of murder, betrayal and darkest palace intrigue, set against the general backdrop of a less gentle time and the peculiar cultural environment of the bedouin tribes. The family was in almost constant conflict with the Ottoman empire, and faced challenges by rivals like the Al Rashid at home. Finally, after decades of internecine war, a pivotal moment came with the capture of Riyadh in 1902 by the young Abd al-Aziz (later known to the West as Ibn Saud), in an act of recklessness that saw him lead an impossibly ill-equipped and outnumbered band of men across the city walls in a charge on the garrison. According to legend, Ibn Saud himself rushed the garrison commander, nearly losing his life in the process. The ensuing years saw a gradual consolidation of Al Saud control in the Nafud area around Riyadh, but not without constant battles against both internal and family foes. The Ikhwan, a spearhead military force instrumental in his early success, were later crushed ruthlessly when they proved unmanageable. And a rival family branch, the Saud al-Kabir, was a constant thorn in his side, but Ibn Saud eventually found peace through co-optation (a marriage alliance through his sister Nura), bringing the competing line into the larger orbit of family rule.

Co-optation had been used as a means of bringing peace and family cooperation before, but none used it as effectively as Ibn Saud. The mechanisms he set out to ensure a smooth succession after his death were founded on the principle that various family divisions and petty rivalries were always to be put aside in the interests of the greater good, that being the perpetuation of family rule. Under later kings, the concept was given further precision and codified, but the essence remained the same.

Related articles: The End of Consensus: Uncharted Terrain?
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Page 2: shifting sands and changing fortunes
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Past Feature Articles
Succession Shock - The Trump Effect?

The King has replaced Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif with his own son, Muhammad, the deputy crown prince and defense minister, in a move which, though not entirely unexpected, represents a seismic shift in the succession dynamic. Now, the position of deputy crown prince remains vacant - will Salman abdicate in favor of his son, and who will be next in line?

The End of Consensus: Uncharted Terrain?

The rapid promotion of King Salman's son, Muhammad, highlights a fundamental contrast between the king and his predecessor. In the matter of succession, owing to his position within the royal family and a different outlook resulting from that advantage, Salman can afford to downplay the role of consensus and effect a radical break from the past.

The Death of Prince Mish'al - Demise of the Allegiance Committee?

With the death of Prince Mish'al, Chairman of the Allegiance Commission - the formal entity established to decide succession matters - King Salman has an opportunity to reconstitute the body and restore its relevancy at a time of great uncertainty over the role of his favorite son, the controversial Muhammad, who serves as deputy crown prince. It is a course of action Salman is unlikely to take.

Hazards Ahead For Muhammad bin Salman: Trump To The Rescue?

The star of the deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, will rise now that the Americans have thrown their weight behind Saudi efforts to reign in Iranian regional influence. President Trump, an unlikely ally, may ensure that Muhammad's place in the succession is secure.

An Asian Tour: Opportunity At Home?

King Salman's Asian tour left the Crown Prince in charge of affairs as his deputy. But while the king's visit to Indonesia garnered worldwide attention for the displays of wealth and the size of his retinue, Muhammad bin Nayif was presented with a golden opportunity to raise his profile at home.

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