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The Multiple Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia

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TRNN discusses the Saudi royal family, the decentralization of power, and all the various princes in Saudi Arabia that are contending with each other.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We’re continuing our discussion and analysis of U.S.-Saudi relations. In this segment, we’re going to specifically talk about the Saudi royal family, the decentralization of power, and all the various princes in Saudi Arabia that are contending with each other.

Now joining us again is Madawi Al-Rasheed. She’s a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State.
Thanks again for joining us, Madawi.


JAY: So there seems to be kind of two different takes on the Saudi royal family elite. One is this is kind of an absolute monarchy, with a king that kind of controls everything. The other, I think, is the—as I read your material, this is more like a medieval fiefdom, with lots of different princes and fiefdoms carving up various centers of power within the government, and the king acts more like a chairman of the board, I guess you could say. Could you explain that? And then we’ll get into it a little more.

AL-RASHEED: Yes. I think since the succession to the throne is very unusual in Saudi Arabia. It moves from brother to brother. And this system hasn’t existed, simply because of its durability that is in question.

But the Saudi royal family was into this kind of system that was put in place in the 1930s by the founder of Saudi Arabia. So, before he died, he designated his son to be the crown prince, and also said that in future succession it should go from one brother to another. And he had more than 35 sons.

But he didn’t anticipate the 21st century, when all of those sons are going to be old at the same time. And sometime there are quite a number of them who are not fit to rule. So the succession principle in Saudi Arabia claims that it follows the principle of seniority, but in fact it can skip a person, a brother, who is not fit to rule and goes to another one. And this is a political game. There are, obviously, no serious equality among the surviving brothers of the king. So there are some who are more powerful and more privileged than others.

So King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia faces this challenge. The brothers are becoming a smaller group and most of them are old. He is in his 90s, and the crown prince is in his late 70s, almost 80 year old. And he wanted to ensure that there is a smooth succession, so he created what is called the oath of allegiance committee, and he stipulated in his constitution that only after he dies, this committee can meet and elect, in inverted commas, the king. And the committee members are 33 or 34 princes. And therefore it’s a secret affair, secret committee that will meet.

But, obviously, he didn’t wait until he dies and wanted to assure the international community that he is in control and the future of Saudi Arabia is going to be in good hands. So he chose a deputy crown prince, Prince Muqrin, in order to ensure that this is a relatively younger prince—relatively meaning that he’s in his 70s—that will become king in case the king himself and the crown prince die at the same time or one after the other. And in this way he kept faithful to the principle of horizontal succession, meaning the type of succession that goes from brother to brother, and avoided the tricky issue of moving to a vertical succession from father to son, simply because the various younger sons of the founder of Saudi Arabia have all managed to establish themselves in ministries.

Some of them have serious military power, such as, for example, the king’s own son Mutaib bin Abdullah, who controls the National Guard. And the National Guard is a paramilitary organization that has a huge budget, that is armed, that has helicopters, airplanes, etc. And also it has a tribal base. Another son of the king’s brother, that is, Muhammad bin Nayef, he’s in control of the Ministry of Interior, which is the largest and most powerful ministry that deals with internal affairs. Other sons command the Army or the Navy.
And therefore we come to this situation where the second generation is varied, and with some second-generation princes more powerful than the others. And the king, obviously, could not resolve the succession by moving it to a member of the second generation, so he chose Prince Muqrin as a safe bet to avoid the shift from the brothers to their son being open and also subject to, perhaps, conflicting demands.

The problem is there are so many sons who are waiting their turn, and therefore the king couldn’t really reach a consensus when he did his discussion with the other 33 members, and they decided that Muqrin is perhaps going to be the future king. And in my view, he’s going to be an honorary king that is going to rule over these multiple fiefdoms, with each second-generation prince in control of a substantial ministry or even a region in Saudi Arabia, in terms of the princes who are governors of important regions, such as the Eastern Province, where most of the oil is, or in the other part of Saudi Arabia, in the west, where the religious cities are, or even in Riyadh, where the largest concentration of the population is.

And therefore Saudi Arabia has moved beyond the single kingdom to multiple kingdoms, with each prince assuming greater power with enormous resources, and Saudis will have to attach themselves to one prince or another and be part of his circle, as in a patron-client relationship, because this is the only way of getting things done in Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that there are so many modern-looking institutions that have been created to deal with government and bureaucracy.

But politics remains personalized, and it revolves around the princes and their clients.

JAY: Now, in medieval times—and this is pretty medieval in structure, even though they have lots of oil and modern weapons and technology. But in medieval times this kind of a structure often led to various kinds of struggles between the various kingdoms. How likely is that to break out?

AL-RASHEED: At the moment, we don’t see any signs. But I think choosing Prince Muqrin to be the future king is a reflection of the danger that may happen once this conflict between the various fiefdoms erupts. So it is basically a question: who is going to be courageous enough to say that succession goes through his line of descent rather than his brother’s line of descent? And we wait to see how this is going to be resolved.

If it’s not resolved, I think what will happen is that we have this honorary king, a symbolic figure, while leaving each prince to enjoy his own fiefdom and the resources that come with controlling substantial ministries, such as—.
JAY: Who controls foreign policy? And this assertion of regional power, you can’t have, like, ten, 15 princes all trying to run this. Or do they? There are ten, 15 different agendas here.

AL-RASHEED: This is exactly what we have in Saudi Arabia. So, for example, the official minister of foreign affairs is Prince Saud Al Faisal, but we find that his brother Turki bin Faisal also gives interviews and always insists that he’s talking in his personal capacity because he does not have an official post in the Saudi government.

But, again, the foreign policy is not run by just Saud Al Faisal. We find that each file is given to a prince. So the king was giving the Syrian file to Bandar bin Sultan; but then, recently, we know that he replaced him after Muhammad bin Nayef, the minister of interior, visited Washington. So we have the minister of interior dealing with the Syrian file, which should be a foreign policy position.

And therefore there is this mixup of politics, as it is very personalized, and the ministries are sometimes competing with each other, because each prince is trying hard to maximize his sphere of influence. So even if you are a minister of interior, you are given a foreign policy file to deal with. And the same thing happens with Yemen. So the king dispatches his son, but, again, sometimes it’s the intelligence services. And there is that kind of mess that is kept in check by the fact that the stakes are so high if this conflict erupts.

JAY: And what happened to Bandar? Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to United States throughout most of the Bush administration. His nickname was Bandar “Bush”, he was so cozy with the Bush family. Bandar, he kind of dropped out of sight for a while; then he came back as head of the—I believe, head of the National Security Council in Saudi Arabia, more or less running intelligence. I mean, Bandar is certainly one of the people thought—if in fact the Senate congressional committee that investigated 9/11 is correct and there was Saudi government involvement in the 9/11 attacks, well, then a lot of speculation goes that Bandar had to have known or been involved in it. Certainly Bandar is the guy that threatens Tony Blair, as I told the story in an earlier segment. It’s Bandar that threatens Putin. It’s Bandar that very recently says that Saudi Arabia’s going its own way in foreign policy because the United States has betrayed them and is too weak on Syria and such and such. And now all of a sudden Bandar gets removed from his position. He’s a very—is he not still an important player in all this?

AL-RASHEED: Well, it’s very difficult to know, because Bandar hasn’t always been the person who is supposed to deal with foreign policy. And this just proves what I said earlier, that you don’t know who’s dealing with which file, and there is no transparency in all this, and it is basically a personalized form of government. Anybody with good contacts can be dispatched to Yemen or to Syria or anywhere else in order to sort out some mess that was created, or even create more mess. And sometimes the policies do not actually make sense.

And the same thing happened in 2003. So we have one prince opposed to the American invasion of Iraq, another prince welcoming the invasion. And therefore there are multiple branches who can’t agree on a foreign policy, and even on reform on the domestic front.

And so just another example of this mess that is created in Saudi Arabia because of the multiplicity of princes on political reform. In 2004, 2005, King Abdullah presented himself as the reformist king who is going to empower women, who is going to listen to reformers, who is going to encourage activists and receive their petitions and deal with their petitions. But he was completely helpless when his brother at the time—Prince Nayef—who was running the Ministry of Interior put most of the reformers in prison for a couple of years. And then in 2005 King Abdullah pardoned them. But the same reformers were imprisoned again in 2008, and King Abdullah was helpless. He couldn’t actually oppose his brother Prince Nayef, who put them in prison.

So we don’t actually know how government works in Saudi Arabia, simply because of these multiple princes. Each one of them has his own constituency and his own ideas about how the government should be run. And therefore we come to some kind of stagnation.

JAY: Now, just finally, there’s been a lot of talk in the press about how increased oil and gas production in the United States is changing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and in general Saudis getting increasingly concerned about just how much global leverage they will have in five or ten or 15 years. How much is that affecting the Saudi politics?

AL-RASHEED: It must worry Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has promoted itself, with the help of think tanks in Washington, that it is a swing producer of oil, that it helps Western economies, and it is actually capable of increasing its production in a very short period of time and deal with any kind of shortages. So this is the narrative, this is the myth about Saudi Arabia.

But now Saudi Arabia feels threatened, first, by Iran as well. If Iranian oil becomes available in markets, this is bound to impact Saudi Arabia. Also, Iraqi oil is extremely important, and if there is some stability in Iraq and it can actually go to its full potential, then the availability of new oil from Iran and Iraq will actually diminish Saudi Arabia’s importance. Added to this the talk, the energy research that is being done about the U.S. becoming self-sufficient, etc. I think Saudi oil will remain important, at least for China, for Asia, and for Europe. Even before this talk about American oil, we know that America didn’t actually import quite a lot of oil from Saudi Arabia, and most of Saudi oil goes to other places, such as Europe and Asia and [incompr.] Asia.

JAY: Well, perhaps this objective of keeping Iraqi and Iranian oil off market, or at least limited on the market, maybe that also explains some of why there’s such a mortal threat, quote-unquote, from the Shia. I mean, if you can keep civil war going in Iraq and you can keep Iran under sanctions, it certainly helps you if you’re Saudi Arabia.

AL-RASHEED: Yes, absolutely it helps. But here the argument is not put in economic terms, and the Saudis do not want to admit that it’s all about money, it’s all about oil and resources. And therefore there is this rhetoric about sectarian religious wars that are sponsored by this group or that group.

But there is quite an important factor in the form of oil and more oil coming to market. And this would actually dilute Saudi Arabia’s importance. And, therefore, if you could keep that oil away or keep its countries unstable—and therefore it is beneficial from a purely economic sort of formula, it’s beneficial to Saudi Arabia.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Madawi.

AL-RASHEED: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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