From Generation to Generation: The Succession Problem in Saudi Arabia

By Nabil Mouline | Lecturer and Researcher - Sciences PO | Oct 01, 2009
Flickr user Puccaso
Flickr user Puccaso
From Generation to Generation: The Succession Problem in Saudi Arabia

The question of succession is the core issue of contention among the members of the Saudi royal family. Ever since its advent in the second half of the 18th century, the dynasty has been suffering from this problem and been trying to overcome it, succeeding as often as failing. This problem is due to the power structure inspired by the local system of kinship.

If the first Saudi state (~1744-1818) was characterized by a lineal-agnatic mode of succession,i which favored its stability and dynamism supported by the Hanbali-Wahhabi doctrine, the second state (1823-1891), which was founded on a more tribal base, adopted the adelphic mode of succession, which is very common in the region. According to this horizontal mode of bequeathing power, only the most powerful member succeeds to the throne. Thus, all of the lineage’s dominant figures are peers between whom only ability and luck can decide.

This mode of succession is prone to making periods of generational transition a time of crisis, where specific lineages try to monopolize power, which often leads to confrontations. Conflict also takes place within the triumphant lineage itself. Repeated periods of crisis engender weakness inside the dominant group, which in turn weakens the political structure as a whole, facilitating foreign meddling and undermining the edifice of the state. In other words, the patrimonial state is a state whose coherence and very existence are brought into question with each generation.

The history of the second Saudi state reflects the troubles to which this adelphic mode of succession and patrimonialization of the state can lead. Assassinations (murder of the Princes Turki and Mishari), fratricidal struggles (wars between prince Faysal and his relatives, then between his sons after his death) as well as foreign interventions (the Ottomans and the al-Rashid) all characterize this period. Indeed, the succession crisis was the principal cause of the demise of the second Saudi state in 1889.

If King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was able to restore his family to the throne in 1902, he did nothing to install a system of succession capable of protecting the Kingdom from fratricidal struggles during times of succession. Instead, he was concerned with eliminating other clans from competing with his sons, notably his brothers and cousins.

Even though he named his son Saud as his Crown Prince, King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz has installed a system that we can call “multi-domination” — investing several of his sons with power. Every one of them controls a sector of political, economic, or military activity in the Kingdom. In the medium term, this division of power would bring about a multiplication of centers of power. Furthermore, maintaining the adelphic system of succession has complicated intra-family power struggles, making all descendents of Ibn Saud powerful contenders for the throne, which would produce a political crisis when the moment of generational transition came (at his death, King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz left 34 sons).

The first years of the reign of Saud (1953-64) were marked by sharing power with different members of the family. Yet, he did not hesitate to resuscitate the old tradition of his family: excluding other branches of the royal family from power, replacing them with his own sons and clients. However, a coalition led by his Prime Minister and half-brother, Prince Faysal, supported by the ‘ulama’, succeeded in overthrowing King Saud in 1964.

The reign of Faysal (1964-75) was marked by the consecration of the multi-domination. Since then, each Prince-Minister, Prince-Governor, as well as prince-CEO has possessed an unlimited power over his domain. Besides the dysfunctionality on the highest levels of the state and the pursuit of parallel and contradictory policies, multi-domination has favored the emergence of family factions as political power centers, as well as paving the way for the council of the royal family to become a center for decision-making. As a consequence, for the King to have a large margin of maneuverability, he needs to rely on a coalition of Princes controlling different sectors.

Thus, to support his policies, King Faysal relied mainly on the Sudayri faction, consisting of the seven full brothers: Fahd, Sultan, Nayif, Salman, ‘Abd Al-Rahman, Ahmad and Turki. The influence of this faction has grown without interruption, especially after the succession of its major figure Fahd to the post of Crown Prince in 1975, then to the throne in 1982 til 2005.

Although it appeared that the Sudayris were going to monopolize power and eliminate other branches, the second Gulf war, initiated by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, upset this plan. In the course of this period of turbulence, King Fahd took a certain number of stabilization measures, one of which was the 1992 Basic Law of Governance. This law was the first official document to provide a legal framework for the question of succession, although in laconic and evasive terms.

Section B of the fifth article states that “power is transmitted [uniquely] to the sons of the founder King ‘Abd al-‘Azîz b. ‘Abd al-Rahmân Âl Sa‘ûd and his grandsons. The most capable amongst them is named [king].” This passage poses more problems than it solves. While the competition for power had, ever since the death of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, been limited to the 34 persons (the sons still alive) — which was very costly both politically and economically — King Fahd opened it to numerous contenders. Thus, that first attempt, though timid, to codify the modalities of succession integrated the generation of the grandsons. This dispensation would exacerbate the tensions and augment the risks of conflicts in the long term by creating a congestion of the collateral branches of the family.

Without calling into question the preponderance of the Sudayri clan, the ten years of the semi-regency of Prince ‘Abdullah (1995-2005) permitted other clans to reenter the competition. Several factions would rally around the Crown Prince, aiming to thwart the hegemonic enterprise of Sudayris. This being said, the period was marked by a status quo power balance between the different factions.

‘Abdullah’s succession to the throne in 2005 has put an end automatically to the modus vivendi, which eventually revived struggles. First of all, these struggles crystallized around the nomination of a second deputy prime minister. According to the political tradition established in 1967, the holder of this title is considered second to the throne in the order of succession — that is to say, the future Crown Prince. Nonetheless, King ‘Abdullah, lacking the power to name a Prince of his choice, kept this office vacant, as the two primary candidates, Nayif and Salman, are Sudayris.

The success of this initial maneuver encouraged King ‘Abdullah and his allies to go further in their pursuit: to destroy the monopoly of the Sudayris in order to preserve the multi-domination system. Without entering in a direct confrontation with the adversary camp, which would achieve the preservation of the status quo at best (since the Sudayri-s control, among other things, the Ministries of Defense and Interior, as well as the Eastern Province, the region of Tabouk, and that of Riyadh), the King installed the Commission of Allegiance (hay’at al-bay‘a) in 2006, responsible for naming, according to more or less precise modalities, the future sovereigns of Saudi Arabia.

If in the long run this commission is targeted at establishing an institutional framework to the problem of succession, its main function in the short term is to name a Crown Prince, making it complicated for the Sudayris to claim the position as well as ensuring a generational transition while maintaining the multi-domination system. In other words, the institution aimed at perpetuating the mode of succession, passing the reins first to all the sons of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz before the advent of the generation of grandsons.

While King ‘Abdullah was determined to put an end to the monopoly of the Sudayris institutionally, he has continued to reinforce his positions as well as those of his allies. The King has attempted at first to increase his efforts in the international domain, acquiring a maximum of symbolic resources (dialogue of religions, mediations between Palestinians as well as between the Iraqi factions, the G-20, different Arab summits, etc.) in order for him to be able to reinvest them internally.

In that regard, ‘Abdullah benefited from the deteriorating health conditions of his Crown Prince Sultan, who was considered by all observers to be on the verge of death in November 2008, as well as profiting from the disarray provoked by this event in the adversary camp, to fortify his position. He tried to place his men in important posts, limiting the influence of the Sudayris.

The ministerial reshuffle and changes in the religious institutions, the Council of Ministers, and the Consultative Council last February, follow a power struggle, rather than a reform, dynamic, as described by certain observers. Many examples support this hypothesis, such as the appointment of his son-in-law to the Ministry of Education, of the chief doctor of the National Guard, presided over by King ‘Abdullah for almost 40 years, to the Ministry of Health, or of an adviser in the Royal Court to the new presidency of the Religious Police, among other examples.

Yet, ‘Abdullah and his partisans have underestimated the capacity of the Sudayris, who control the most important institutions in the country, and have to cope with an unexpected situation. Against all expectations, Crown Prince Sultan has survived and is recovering, at least according to official statements. His full brothers, led by Nayif and Salman, have gone on the offensive. Spreading their propaganda (in the parts of the media that take their side), increasing political pressure (pointing to the spectrum of terrorism), as well as negotiating with the royal family, the Sudayris have gained a considerable landmark: Nayif was named second Deputy Prime Minister in March 2009. That is to say, he is the future Crown Prince.

Whatever the scenario, the question of succession remains problematic, and the fratricidal struggles threaten to escalate when the moment of generational transition comes. The Commission of Allegiance seems to be a tool (among many others) put in place to channel these struggles and preserve the multi-domination system, as well as to facilitate the transition to the second generation. However, the multiplication of contenders in the near future (with personal ties increasingly weakened), which implies a multiplication of centers of influence, cannot but fragment power, make difficult the process of decision-making, and handicap the functionality of the state. That being said, all measures taken by King ‘Abdullah and his allies to perpetuate the multi-domination are unlikely to prevent the emergence in the medium term of a dominant lineage, probably a Sudayri lineage that would little by little monopolize power.


i. Wherein power passes to the Monarch’s younger brothers before passing tot eh Monarch’s sons.


The institution aimed at perpetuating the mode of succession

Read more: