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Feature Article
2023-02-01

Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part I)

The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, is set to become the first of a younger generation to sit upon the throne, a transition which represents a fundamental break with both precedent and a tradition in which of the sons of the Kingdom's founder each took their place in turn. Succession in the royal family, however, is a dynamic process, a reflection of the realities of the time as well as the political environment.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

When the young Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman (often referred to as Ibn Saud in later accounts) set out to regain the family honor by wresting control of Riyadh and its environs from a rival family in the early part of the last century, the concept of the modern nation-state would have been utterly foreign. The Najd plateau of the Arabian peninsula, an impoverished and sparsely populated desert region, was the traditional home of the the Al Saud, centered around the oasis of al-Dir'iyyah. A fortuitous alliance with the reformist preacher Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, however, was the spark to ignite a rapid expansion of their domain in the middle of the 18th century. This compact, sealed by marriage, brought together the fervent zeal of the Wahhabi movement and the Al Saud's territorial ambitions; eventually the area under their control, formerly lawless areas inhabited by nomadic bedouin tribes, spread across the Najd to the eastern coast and even Bahrain. For the next two hundred years, the family would hold the region, although not without interruptions from foreign incursions, as Egyptian armies challenged for supremacy. The amirate was passed down through the generations, with relations to the family of Abd al-Wahhab playing a strong role in legitimizing the successor chosen by the ruling Amir.

By the latter part of the 19th century, however, family unity was in bloody disarray, as the sons of Faysal bin Turki fought among themselves in a years-long running battle of shifting factions and tribal alliances. In the meantime, the Rashidi from the north were extending their reach into the same area. By the end, only the Amir Abd al-Rahman remained, with but a tenuous hold on Riyadh. He was finally defeated at the battle of Mulayda in 1891, and fled with his children to safety in the east (Abd al-Aziz and his sister Nura riding in a camel saddlebag, as the story goes). They eventually found refuge in Kuwait, the sad denouement to decades of bloodshed, betrayal and turmoil. While grateful for the shelter provided by the Al Sabah in their new home, Abd al-Aziz grew into adulthood certain of the inevitability of a triumphant return, which would wipe out the humiliation of the ignoble retreat and redress what he believed to be a divine injustice.

A daring, if not reckless, charge on the Riyadh fort in 1902 took the Rashidi garrison by surprise, and proved to be the first step in the reconquest of the peninsula. With the support of a number of relatives, notably his brother Muhammad and cousin Abdallah bin Jiluwi, he launched into a protracted campaign against the Rashidi. Fierce battles cost the lives of many of the clan, but after a final siege at Ha'il in 1921, opposition collapsed. Abd al-Aziz then turned his attention westward, taking charge of the Hijaz on the seaboard and the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, where he relied on the zeal of a fanatical group of religious extremists known as the Ikhwan, harkening back to the early days of the Saudi state. Such were their excesses, however, that he was ultimately forced to put down the movement, even if the Wahhabi alliance remained steadfast. By 1932, the same year that American petroleum engineers discovered oil in the eastern province, Ibn Saud's grip was secure enough that the transition from amirate to kingdom was complete.

Succession had never been simply a matter of passing the amirate along from father to son, but rather, in the tradition of the bedouin tribes, a choice of the most suitable candidate. Pride of place was given to seniority, but direct lineage was not a requirement; if none of a shaykh's sons were deemed impressive enough, a brother, cousin or uncle would be preferred. Not only prowess in battle was considered, but also the qualities of good judgement and character (even if family politics played an outsized role). With Ibn Saud now firmly in charge, the question of who would inherit the throne came to the fore.

Related articles: Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?
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