Saudi Arabia's Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah
Saudi Arabia's Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah


Succession And Political Stability In Saudi Arabia – Analysis

By

By Prabhat Prakash

For the last 60 years, the crown has been passed on to Ibn Saud’s many sons who have continued his family line. So, by extending this principle of succession it can be argued that if the crown is passed to the next generation, that branch of the family will dominate the coming successions and eliminate other family lines.

Succession to the next generation may pose a threat to the Kingdom’s stability as it will create “a complex web of rivalry and political competition”1 among Saudi princes who wish to secure their family lines. House argues that historical precedent suggests that the system of brotherly succession has created family feuds in the past, which have led to the collapse of previous Saudi states. The second Saudi state, she contends, was toppled in 1891 due to Al Saud brothers fighting for dominance2 . There were others like, Saud bin Abdulaziz (son of Ibn Saud), who when in power drained State resources and left the nation bankrupt.

In Saudi, the King holds the ultimate power and by that token it can be argued that he is the sole decision maker. But there is historical precedent that suggests that important decisions are only approved by the King once consensus has been reached. This was evident when in 1990s, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (son of Ibn Saud and the current King) was trying to liaison with foreign oil companies but the decision was delayed because the step was being opposed by the members of House of Saud. This form of decision making has its root in the Bedouin tradition, where decisions are taken by consulting the heads of different tribes. It can be suggested that the Bedouin tradition is not for maintaining equality but to guarantee loyalty. A society which has not embraced western style democracy and is based on a system of hierarchical superiority where the pace of reform is influenced by its rigid and conservative political system, it is essential to keep these isolated tribes content because regional tensions can infect the Kingdom and trigger instability.

Regression and unpredictability

Al- Rasheed argues that Saudi Arabia can be defined as a kingdom in regression which is, “plagued by regular reshuffling of princes and lacking energetic leadership with a serious vision for the future”3 . By extending this argument of constant instability in the kingdom, it can be suggested that any succession due to its sheer complexity is open to conflict. Reshuffling can also be seen as a way of redistributing wealth in Saudi Arabia, as governmental seniority brings opportunities to make financial gains. Al-Rasheed calls this a ‘balanced and orchestrated game,’ which upholds the principles of the Bedouin tradition. The unpredictability and ambiguity of the Saudi succession system creates an illusion that all contenders to the Crown have an equal chance of becoming the King and therefore reduces the probability of voices being raised against the status quo. This hinders the possibility of future reforms.

Karasik draws comparisons between Saudi and the Soviet Union by arguing that “Saudi Arabia right now is looking a lot like the Soviet Union did at the end of its empire in terms of ageing leadership and switching leaders quickly because of sudden deaths.”4 However, it will be naive to believe that Saudi will have the same fate as the Soviet Union because both are distinct in their internal and external policies. Today’s challenges are different from those of the post Cold War era and Saudi’s close economic ties with the US and its strong regional position makes the political climate of the Kingdom unique. America’s vested interest in Saudi Arabia both in terms of oil and its crucial role in aiding the US to maintain the regional stability or insatiability are of prime consideration.

Factors affecting succession

There has been a great amount of speculation among diplomats, academics and the business industry about the internal workings of the House of Saud. Different factions of the international community have different priorities and therefore hold a distinct conception as to what the decision making process entails. It can be argued that if one is well versed with the internal dynamics of the Royal family, it will aid the process of predicting decisions taken by the King. However, it would be ignorant to believe that House of Saud functions in isolation and external factions do not influence the dynamics within the Kingdom. These external factions tend to include a wide variety of stakeholders including State and non State actors. In order to understand the Saudi political system and succession it is pivotal to consider some of these rational and irrational actors who have the potential to influence Succession.

Religion and politics

Understanding the Saudi-Wahhabi relationship is pivotal to analyse the operations of the State. Yamani argues that the region can be defined in terms of struggle for mastery of the Muslim world. It can be suggested that this struggle includes two major regional players, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both can be perceived as expansionists and promoting their sect of Islam 5 .This is evident from the lengths the Saudi-Wahhabi regime has gone to promote their politico-religious ideology. Bronson elaborates on this and contends that King Fahd spent over $75 billion to build religious schools and Mosques 6.

The importance of religious organisations is well established in Saudi Arabia. When in 1963, King Saud refused to give up the Crown, the Ulema intervened and appointed Crown prince Faisal as the new King. This proves the kind of power the Ulema holds in Saudi society. This can be seen as a classic example of a symbiotic relationship between religion and politics. In Saudi, the leadership has often used religious organisations to legitimise their rule, as this provides the decisions taken by the government a religious backing which in turn gives the religious authorities a position of respect in civil society. Marines agrees with this and suggests that the relationship between the Ulema and the Government can be viewed as one which is exemplified by interdependence7 .

The Ulema in Saudi can also be compared with the Iranian Supreme leader in that it is seen as a institution of high importance, but the Ulema, unlike the Supreme leader, does not enjoy an official status and is mainly used as a tool of political and social legitimisation. Therefore, it can be suggested that due to the Kingdom’s history and the role religion played in its formation, the State cannot function without a body that upholds its religion. Salame posits that the Saudi political system can be defined in terms of theocracy. But by viewing the political system in such narrow terms, the importance of local identities and societal values are ignored8 . These regional differences provide Saudi’s with a sense of identity which plays a crucial part in Saudi politics that is based on regional inclusion.

In March 2013, a prominent cleric denounced the harsh sentencing of two human rights activists through an ‘open letter’, in which he argued that, “There is smoke and dust on the horizon. We are justified in worrying about what lies beyond. If the security agencies tighten their grip, it will only worsen the quagmire we are in and cut off all hope of reform,” 9 this is an example of the discord between the administration and the religious authorities that has shaped Saudi politics. Now the call for reform is not only wanted and argued by the minorities or the underrepresented liberals but also other sections of the society. It will only be logical to contend that maintaining Saudi-Wahhabi relationship is essential for Kingdom’s stability.

Royal women

Henderson argues that the Royal women play an important part in Saudi politics and hence succession. It can be suggested that due to the prominence of intermarriages within the House of Saud, the women represent important families in the Kingdom and can therefore build alliances between different branches. Henderson employs the example of how King Fahd used to summon the women of al-Saud and discuss his views. This can be seen as an extension of the Bedouin tradition and importance placed on building consensus.

American influence

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is defined by necessity rather than choice. US have vested interests in the region and Saudi’s strategic position aids US in tackling regional dilemmas. Saudi Arabia also plays a ‘leadership’ role in promotion and conservation of Islam, both as a religion and an ideology. It is often argued that the relationship between the two nations makes Saudi Arabia seem like Americas de facto colony. Sampson suggested that from early 20th century when US oil companies invaded Saudi, the State has learned to survive through international necessity rather than internal legitimacy10 . US also controlled Saudi Arabia through being its ‘international protector’. Throughout the 20th century, US aided Saudi in its military operations and remained its prime supplier of weapons. However, Yamani argues that this has hindered Saudi from developing its own military capabilities. Saudi has also used US to maintain its role as the regional power. A stronghold in the Kingdom has aided US to take and often dictate decisions to other regional players. Therefore, US will ‘want’ a leader that is sympathetic to the US cause and wishes to build a relationship based on consensus and help maintain US’s position in the region.

Henderson argues that nature of this symbiotic relationship has often been determined by the personality of the King11 . King Fahd was considered sympathetic to the US and his decision to allow US military during the 1991 Gulf war alerted the region but reaffirmed his alliance with the US. Blanchard argues that the Obama Administration has cooperated with Saudi authorities on both regional and internal issues12 . King Abdullah has continued this interdependent relationship but has taken a more cautious approach.

Succession and regional influences

Since the region has been defined through a history of conflicts and intervention from the time of the Ottoman Empire, it can be suggested that its borders and people are not immune to change initiated by violent conflicts. Until now, Saudi has not been affected by the dramatic geopolitical changes in the region but to ensure this stability it will have to take calculated steps. Saudi plays an important role in the region but this can also prove problematic for its succession plans. Its constant discord with Iran over its internal politics and its role as an aggressor in the region has made the two countries regional rivals. It has been argued that in order to contain Iran’s power, Saudi should appoint a more dynamic leader. It is contended that currently Saudi is “politically incapacitated” and America and the Gulf countries should push forward for reform in the Kingdom13 . It can be suggested that the US can play an indirect role by encouraging GCC countries to engage in dialogue with the Royal family and establish a basis for developing a multilateral dialogue to strengthen the plans for succession into the next generation. Saud bin Faisal (son of Ibn Saud), has advocated a dialogue with GCC countries regarding Iran, but its prospects were halted due to the alleged assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador in Washington14 .

The Emir of Qatar has passed the Crown to his son, Tamin Bin Hamad Al Thani15 . If Saudi follows the Qatari precedent, there is hope for internal reforms in the Kingdom as a younger leadership can bring a fresh outlook in liaison with the religious authorities to lighten the conservative mood in the country. Qatar in the last 30 years has been transformed into a major regional player which has formulated a highly assertive foreign policy. However, it will be inaccurate to compare Saudi and Qatar, as both countries have distinct demographics. Qatar is not plagued with many of Saudi’s social problems like youth unemployment and income inequality. Qatar, owing to its disproportionately small size and the wealth generated from its natural gas reserves, give it a per capita rate four times that of Saudi. Cunningham argues that the Qatari succession should not be seen as a shake-up but a mere shuffle, the main purpose of which is to send a signal to its regional rivals and the international community of its modernising nature16 . There are commonalities between the two Gulf States, such as their aggressive stand towards Iran. In that sense, an alliance between the younger generations over geopolitical issues can prove beneficial.

Orderly succession, political reforms through consensus and regular consultation to promote regional harmony will contribute to stability within Saudi Arabia and in the West Asian region as a whole; stability vital for peace and harmony in the world at large.

(The author was a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
1.    “The Political Outlook of Saudi Arabia”, Chatham House Reports. May 2011

2.    House, Karen. On Saudi Arabia. Alfred A. Knope (2012)

3.    Al-Rasheed,The unpredictable succession plan of Saudi Arabia. April 23 2013

4.    Katy Watson, “Saudi succession raises Economic Challenges.” BBC News 26 June 2012

5.    May Yamani. (2009). From fragility to stability: a survival strategy for the Saudi monarchy. Contempory Arab Affairs . 2 (2), 90-105.

6.    Bronson, R., 2006. Thicker than oil: America’s uneasy partnership with Saudi Arabia. New York: Oxford University Press.

7.    Marines, Alejandra Galindo (2001) The relationship between the ulama and the government in the contemporary Saudi Arabian Kingdom: an interdependent relationship?, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3989/

8.    Salame, Ghassan (1987). “Islam and Politics in Saudi Arabia” in Arab Studies Quaterly 9, (3): 306-325.

9.    Editorial. (2013). House of Saud: built on sand. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/02/saudi-arabia-editorial

10.    Sampson, A., 1975. The Seven Sisters: the great oil companies and the world they shaped. New York; Viking Press.

11.    Simon Henderson, “The Saudi Way.” Wall Street journal, August 2012

12.    Blanchard, C. (2012) “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S relations”. Congressional research service.

13.    Simon Hendreson . (2013). To stop Iraa, get a new Saudi King . Available: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/01/to-stop-iran-get-a-new-saudi-king/267013/.

14.    Blanchard, C. (2012) “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S relations”. Congressional research service.

15.    “Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad hands power to son Tamim”. BBC. 25 June 2013

16.    Finian Cunningham. (2013). Qatar power transfer simply PR exercise triggered by Saudi rivalry. Available: http://www.presstv.com/detail/2013/06/27/311025/saudi-rivalry-behind-qatari-pr-shuffle/.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

To ensure Eurasia Review continues to operate, please click on the donate button below. We thank you in advance.

Help Eurasia Review

One thought on “Succession And Political Stability In Saudi Arabia – Analysis”

  1. The House of Saud is on shifting sands and is fighting a rear-guard action against the encroaching “Arab Spring” that has unleashed forces that will eventually topple all the autocratic status-quo family fiefdoms who have not implemented meaningful reforms or provided opportunities for their people. The Arab world ranks the lowest in HDI and other socioy-econimic indexes. Two major Arab nations of Iraq and Syria have been totally destroyed by wars and fratricide and Egypt is hardly faring better. The fire in the Arab world will not be contained.

    The Saudi obsession with Iran is also misplaced as the House of Saud simply does not have the strategic mass to change the balance of power or demographics in the Persian Gulf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>