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Feature Article

Royal Family Consensus: Shattering A Myth?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman wraps up his U.S. visit, few would question his apparent status as de facto ruler of the Kingdom, and whatever questions remain about the upcoming succession center on the role family consensus will play. In fact, the more recent history of the Al Saud turns out to have been an anomaly, and the rapid elevation of the crown prince suggests that the traditional mechanisms of royal governance may have been more myth than reality.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

During his U.K. and American trips, Crown Prince Muhammad (MbS) has faced severe criticism over the civilian casualties and unfolding humanitarian disaster in Yemen caused by Saudi's military campaign there, though his visits can be considered a success in that strategic ties were reaffirmed and significant business deals were made. Concern remains about the events surrounding the "anti-corruption" purge which ensnared at least 200 elite figures, including a number of princes, and continues to be a factor weighing against foreign investment in the Kingdom, as contrary to the aim of demonstrating resolve towards corrupt business practice, the purge appeared to the outside as a combination of a cash grab and a clampdown on dissent. Paired with the silencing of even moderate opposition voices, the sudden shock threatens to derail longer-term plans to attract foreign money and fulfill the aims of Vision 2030; indeed, there are rumblings that the massive IPO of state-owned oil giant Aramco may turn out to be a significantly more modest affair, restricted even to a local, rather than an international, offering. But despite the uncertainty and controversy, MbS is recognised as the man in charge. King Salman increasingly remains in the background, fulfilling the formal, and ceremonial, roles while he hands more and more responsibility to his son.

In fact, the sudden rise of MbS and the seeming rupture in what has been, until now, a fairly predictable, succession process, has prompted some to declare the end of royal family consensus, as though the Kingdom were about to embark on a perilous journey. More appropriately, we should question the extent to which the vaunted 'consensus' ever really existed, apart from the realm of myth. If we accept that in large measure, the family itself was responsible for perpetuating the idea that the king ruled as a sort of primus inter pares, and that the reality of the last several decades was more akin to a Mexican standoff than an amicable family gathering, it may be that the 'new' paradigm of nearly unchallenged rule by a single, immensely powerful king, is much more a return to the traditional ways of the family. In this view, the years of Kings Fahd and Abdallah were bound by a set of very specific circumstances that confined their brothers within narrow fields of influence that prevented a challenge to the leadership; at the same time, the throne was not powerful enough to remove those potential challenges entirely.

The Kingdom's founder, Ibn Saud, had no wish to govern from within any kind of family council. At the time he took control, the Al Saud was still recovering from decades in exile, and fratricidal warfare before that. His father, Abd al-Rahman, had more or less inherited what was left of the Saudi state (which did not amount to much by then) after his older brothers had fought among themselves in a back-and-forth that had drained their resources and scattered the family. Nothing tangible remained by the time Ibn Saud was growing up in Kuwait, and he felt little need later to involve the broader family as he began to consolidate control over the Najd region, and eventually nearly the whole peninsula. Some, like his Jiluwi cousins who had directly aided in the earlier military exploits, were rewarded with territory to govern virtually as fiefdoms, but this was also true of allied families such as the Sudairy. His hand was forced, however, by the continual uprisings by cousins known as the Ara'if, from the Saud al-Kabir line, nominally the family's senior line, who disputed Ibn Saud's rule in the early part of the century. After eventual defeat in battle, he chose to co-opt the branch, all but explicitly recognising that governance was to be a family enterprise. From then on, the al-Kabir line, his cousins of the Abd al-Rahman line, and even members of long-forgotten cadet branches would be involved in managing the state.

Related articles: Age of Disruption: The Fourth Saudi State?
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Past Feature Articles
The Crown Prince, Change And Failure: Grooming For Power?

In the midst of excited chatter over the latest news on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, it has nearly been forgotten that King Salman is still in charge. The king, despite exaggerated reports of his declining health, continues to groom his favorite son for office, allowing him wide latitude for action while still holding back from a complete abdication.

Age of Disruption: The Fourth Saudi State?

Now that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is firmly in control, is it premature to ask whether his footing is so secure, and his power base so distinct from that of his predecessors, that one may begin to distinguish the outlines of a fundamentally new political state?

The Strange Case Of The 'Salvatore Mundi' - Hiding In Plain Sight?

At the same time as the identity of the mysterious buyer of an expensive and controversial work of auctioned art is revealed to be Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the fate of dozens of royals detained for alleged corruption remains uncertain. Does the news of his purchase make a mockery of his economic austerity program, or is Muhammad sending a subtle message to his opponents?

A Royal Purge: Public Relations or Private Scores?

The spectacular arrests of high-profile members of the royal family on November 4 rivetted the world's attention on Saudi Arabia and it's young crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Under the guise of an anti-corruption drive, any opposition to Muhammad from within the royal family has been effectively shut down; at the same time, the purge solidifies his support from the broader public.

The Disaffected Princes: Danger From Within?

Despite an implicit admission that achieving the targets of Vision 2030 will be difficult, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is ploughing ahead with reforms. At the same time, any criticism of royal rule is being firmly rebuffed. Dealing with immediate threats to royal rule, however, may leave Muhammad exposed to challenge on another front.