Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

Although the Saudi king in 1992 was an absolute monarch in the sense that there were no formal, institutionalized checks on his authority, in practice his ability to rule effectively depended on his astuteness in creating and maintaining consensus within his very large, extended family. The king was the patriarch of the Al Saud, which, including all its collateral branches, numbered about 20,000 people. These persons traced their patrilineal descent to Muhammad ibn Saud, the eighteenth- century founder of the dynasty. The most important branch of the Al Saud family was known as Al Faisal. The Al Faisal branch consisted of the patrilineal descendants of Abd al Aziz's grandfather, Faisal ibn Turki. Only males of the Al Faisal branch of the family, estimated at more than 4,000 in 1992, were considered royalty and were accorded the title of amir (prince).

Even within the Al Faisal branch of the Al Saud family, the princes did not enjoy the same degree of influence. The several lineages within the Al Faisal branch derived from the numerous sons and grandsons of Faisal ibn Turki. His most important grandson, Abd al Aziz, married several women, each of whom bore the king one or more sons. The sons of Abd al Aziz by the same mother (full brothers) inevitably felt more affinity for one another than for their half brothers, and thus political influence within this patrilineal family actually tended to be wielded on the basis of matrilineal descent. Since Fahd's ascent to the throne in 1982, the most influential clan of the Al Faisal branch of the Al Saud family has been the Al Sudairi, known by the patronymic of Fahd's mother. Fahd had seven full brothers, including Minister of Defense Sultan, who was second in the line of succession, Minister of Interior Nayif, and Governor of Riyadh Salman. Sultan and Salman were considered to be Fahd's closest political advisers. In 1983 Fahd appointed one of Sultan's sons, Bandar, to be the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Another of Sultan's sons, Khalid, was the de facto commander of Saudi armed forces during the Persian Gulf War. At least once a week, the king and his full brothers met for a family dinner at which they shared perspectives about national and international politics. In addition to his full brothers, seven of Fahd's half brothers were sons of other Al Sudairi women whom his father had married. As the sons of Fahd and his brothers matured and assumed government responsibilities during the 1980s, some Saudis began to refer to the clan as Al Fahd instead of Al Sudairi.

The Al Thunayyan clan was closely allied to the Al Sudairi. King Faisal's favorite wife had been from the Al Thunayyan, a collateral branch of the Al Saud family that had intermarried with the Al ash Shaykh ulama family. During the Al Saud crisis that culminated in the 1964 deposition of King Saud, the Al Sudairi consistently supported Faisal. Because Faisal had no full brothers, he tended to favor those of his half brothers who had backed him during the prolonged political struggle with Saud. For example, Fahd, Sultan, and Nayif all received important ministerial positions from Faisal when he was crown prince (1953- 64) and for much of that period Saud's prime minister. Following Faisal's assassination in 1975, Fahd, the eldest of the Al Sudairi brothers, was named second in the line of succession. Before becoming king in 1982, Fahd served as King Khalid's de facto prime minister and used his influence to obtain ministerial-level appointments for Faisal's sons. One son, Saud ibn Faisal, was named minister of foreign affairs in 1975.

The Al Jiluwi was a third influential clan of the Al Saud family. The Al Jiluwi were descended from a brother of Faisal ibn Turki, the grandfather of Abd al Aziz. The mother of the late King Khalid and his only full brother, Muhammad (born 1910), had been an Al Jiluwi. In the early 1960s, Khalid and Muhammad had shared the critical views of their half brothers Faisal and Fahd with respect to Saud's style of rule, and they were among the select group of princes and ulama who joined to depose Saud in 1964. The following year Muhammad, who was older than Khalid and thus next in line of succession, renounced his right to the throne in favor of his brother. After Faisal's assassination, Muhammad was instrumental in persuading two younger brothers, whose birth order preceded that of Fahd, to defer and accept Fahd as crown prince. After Khalid's death in 1982, Muhammad remained one of the senior Saudi princes whom Fahd routinely consulted before making major political decisions. The sons of Khalid and Muhammad, however, have not demonstrated much interest in or aptitude for politics, and none of them held an important government position in 1992.

Unlike the Al Sudairi, Al Thunayyan, and Al Jiluwi, the fourth influential Al Saud clan, the Al Kabir, was not patrilineally descended from Abd al Aziz but from his first cousin, Saud al Kabir. Thus, the Al Kabir princes were not in the line of succession. Their influence actually derived from their matrilineal descent: they were the sons and grandsons of Saud al Kabir's wife Nura, the favorite sister of Abd al Aziz. The patriarch of the Al Kabir clan, Muhammad ibn Saud (born 1909, not to be confused with Muhammad ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud), was considered one of the senior Al Saud princes and was widely respected for his intimate knowledge of tribal genealogies and oral histories. Muhammad ibn Saud's eleven adult sons were active in business and politics.

In addition to the clans, the Al Saud had numerous political factions. The factions tended to be centered on a brother or coalition of brothers. For example, Fahd and his six full brothers have been known as the "Sudairi Seven" since the late 1970s. When Fahd became king in 1982, the Sudairi Seven emerged as the most powerful of the family factions. Five of Fahd's brothers held important government positions in 1992. Outside the royal family, the Sudairi Seven were regarded as the faction most favorably inclined toward economic development, political and social liberalization, and a close relationship with the United States.

In 1992 the second most important family faction centered on Crown Prince Abd Allah, who headed the national guard. Abd Allah had no full brothers, but he cultivated close relationships with half brothers and nephews who also lacked family allies because they either had no full brothers or were isolated for some other reason. For example, in 1984 Abd Allah had appointed one of the sons of deposed King Saud as commander of the national guard in the Eastern Province. Prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Abd Allah faction had a reputation as traditionalists who opposed many of the domestic and foreign polices favored by the Al Sudairi. In particular, the Abd Allah faction criticized the kingdom's military dependence on the United States. The Abd Allah faction also was a proponent of closer relations with Iran and Syria. During the Persian Gulf War, however, Abd Allah supported the decision to permit stationing of United States troops in the country. Since then, foreign policy has receded as a divisive issue within the House of Saud.

The more than sixty grandsons of Abd al Aziz constituted a third discernible faction within the Al Saud. Among this generation, the sons of King Faisal and King Fahd have assumed the most important positions. The principal characteristic of the junior princes was their high level of education, often including graduate studies in the United States or Europe. In fact, during the 1980s, education, rather than seniority based on age, appeared to be the major source of influence for members of this generation. Fahd appointed many of them to responsible posts as ambassadors, provincial governors, and deputy ministers. Nevertheless, in terms of family politics, it was not clear whether the junior princes constituted a unified group, and if so, whether they were more favorably inclined toward the Al Sudairi faction or the Abd Allah faction.

King Fahd usually consulted with several dozen senior princes of the four principal Al Saud clans before making major decisions. These influential princes, together with a score of leading ulama, comprised a group known as the ahl al hall wa al aqd (literally, "those who loose and bind"). The ahl al hall wa al aqd numbered 100 to 150 men, but it was not a formal institution. The most important function of the group seemed to be to provide a broad elite consensus for government policy initiatives. Nevertheless, few analysts understood the precise nature of the relationship between the monarchy and the ahl al hall wa al aqd. In the past, the group had deposed one king (Saud in 1964) and had provided the public acclamation necessary to ensure the smooth accession to the throne of Faisal, Khalid, and Fahd.

The Ulama
Beduin Tribes and Merchant Families

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress