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Feature Article
The Kingdom: Succession in Saudi Arabia (part two) 2007-11-01
In the tribal tradition, the authority of the shaykh, as "father of his people", was limited to driving consensus - his role being to carry public opinion, to discuss and examine an issue from every angle until the majority were convinced. In the modern era, still relying on this model of patriarchal rule by a consensus-driven extended family, the Al Saud have developed novel institutions to grapple with the difficulties of succession.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

After the line of Abd al-Rahman bin Faysal became marginalized with the deaths of Khalid bin Muhammad bin Abd al-Rahman and his son Khalid, and with the cadet branches on the fringes of power, it was left for the elder sons of the late King Abd al-Aziz to contend among themselves for leadership of the third Saudi state. Any challenge to Ibn Saud's line from a collateral branch of the family was now unthinkable, and seniority should have made future successions a simple matter. However, the seniority principle had never been fully respected in the past, and any aspirant to the amirate, despite the advantages of having been groomed for the role since birth, still needed to rely on the support of key family members, the religious establishment, technocrats, and tribal and regional leaders.

Some candidates, such as Nasir bin Abd al-Aziz, were deemed unsuitable for succession by the larger family. In Nasir's case, his involvement in scandal (the death of several drinking companions at an illegal drinking party) doomed his chances, but his lack of accomplishment and low birth (a theme which will appear later) were also factors considered. The unstable Musa'id bin Abd al-Aziz, who on the basis of seniority alone could have mounted a challenge to the throne, was also passed over. The actions of his son Faysal bin Musa'id (the assassin of King Faysal) put an end to whatever political ambitions he may have had. Other princes, such as Sa'd bin Abd al-Aziz, had taken no part in public life, and demonstrating no interest in such a role, voluntarily renounced their right.

The case of Mansur bin Abd al-Aziz is more significant, as an illustration of how a rising star might attempt to bypass the usual mechanisms. Mansur was the son of Shahida, a favorite concubine of the king, but despite this he seems to have been held in high favor. His career was fast-tracked, and he held a succession of important posts including the Minister of Defense portfolio (which he was given at age 22). There was alarm, however, when it was rumored that he was forming a special military unit loyal to him alone, leading to fears that he planned to mount a challenge to the succession. Undeniably capable, and with broad experience, he could have mounted a legitimate challenge, had not an early death put an end to his ambitions.

When King Saud was in power, there was an attempt to promote the interests of his own sons, which was so blatant (even for a society in which nepotism is considered the norm), that the family began to see Saud's maneuverings as an attempt to create an alternate line of succession. Saud's sons benefitted from his patronage and secured important posts well beyond their years and experience (Khalid bin Saud was given the post of Commander of the National Guard at age 17). It was thought (undoubtably with good reason) that Saud was attempting to pass the succession to his own line, which only added to the alarm the family felt over Saud's policies.

In the end, Saud was removed from power, though not without a major, and very public, struggle. Saud's sons were removed from their sinecures, and it is only very recently that his descendants have been brought back into the fold, such was the upheaval the episode caused. The consequent embarrassment meant that the family was more determined than ever to resolve their differences in private.

The lesson was that the reign of Saud had not acquired nearly enough momentum, nor did he have sufficient prestige, to allow for the passing of the throne to his descendants, and create a new line of succession. As yet, family power was diffuse enough, and its family elders (including those from collateral branches) influential enough to prevent this from happening. At the time of Saud's successors, Faysal and Khalid, the possibility of dissent still restrained the family's choice of a successor. Whether this is still the case will be explored later.

the ahl al-aqd wa al-hall
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