The Last of the Sudeiri Seven
Mareeg.com-LONDON – Ever since the Al Saud clan established in 1932 the Kingdom to which they
gave their name, the exercise of power in Saudi Arabia has been shaped by the
intrigues and intricacies of royal politics. But never before has this internal
struggle had such far-reaching ramifications for the region and beyond as it does
With some 22,000 members, competition is rife within the world’s largest ruling
family – a dynamic set in motion by the Kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz Al Saud, as he
sought to secure the role of his 43 sons as future rulers, and sustained by King
Abdullah’s succession strategy today.
A Saudi prince’s status is based on his mother’s tribe and his alliances with other
male royals. From the outset, power was grouped on the basis of coalitions of full
brothers, the most significant of whom were the “Sudeiri Seven,” Abdul Aziz’s sons
with his wife Hissah Al Sudeiri. With the assassination of King Faisal in 1975 by
his nephew, the Sudeiri branch of the family became its dominant faction. Fahd, the
eldest Sudeiri son, ruled for 23 years, the longest reign for a Saudi king.
Abdullah’s succession in 2005 posed a direct challenge to the Sudeiri brothers’
authority. Indeed, following Fahd’s death, Sudeiri power was reduced significantly,
with only Crown Princes Sultan and Naif holding key roles.
Abdullah does not have a full brother. To block a Sudeiri restoration, he initially
grouped together a number of marginalized, likeminded princes. Though Abdullah’s
“Allegiance Council” was subject to Sultan’s control, its inclusion of Abdul Aziz’s
remaining sons and the sons of his deceased brothers – in particular, King Faisal’s
sons – gave the non-Sudeiri princes an institutional base of power.
The shift in power from the Sudeiris to King Abdullah and his sons was accelerated
by the death of the two Sudeiri crown princes within a period of eight months. After
Sultan (who served for decades as Minister of Defense) died in October 2011,
Abdullah froze the Allegiance Council. Following the death of Naif (who was Minister
of Interior for 37 years) in June 2012, he removed Abdul Rahman, a Sudeiri, and
appointed Salman as Crown Prince.
Salman, too, is a Sudeiri, but his appointment represented a significant change,
partly owing to his relative youth (78 years old). Indeed, perhaps to satisfy the
desire of the United States, a key ally, for a new generation of Saudi rulers, the
92-year-old Abdullah passed over all of his octogenarian brothers and appointed the
youngest, 65-year-old Prince Migrin, as Second Deputy, putting him first in line to
the throne after Salman.
Nearly a decade after succeeding Fahd, Abdullah has attained absolute power, and he
is using it. For example, he has strengthened the National Guard’s position by
raising its status to that of a ministry, led by his eldest son, Mit’ib. As a result
of these and other changes, including the removal of key officials, such as Deputy
Commander Badr Bin Abdul Aziz, the Guard’s power is now equal, if not superior, to
that of the army.
Likewise, it is believed that Abdullah’s son, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs
Abdul Aziz, will soon replace Saud al Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign
minister. Abdullah also appointed his son Mish’al as Governor of Najran, before
raising Mish’al’s profile further, in December 2013, by naming him Governor of
Mecca, in place of Khalid Al Faisal. Meanwhile, Abdullah’s son Turki has been made
Deputy Governor of Riyadh.
Whatever Abdullah’s consolidation of power might mean domestically, the implications
for the region are profound. In personalizing Saudi politics to the extent that he
has, Abdullah has also personalized foreign policymaking. That has meant
subordinating meritocracy to kinship and loyalty, which has inevitably weakened the
regime’s capacity to respond effectively to regional developments.
To be sure, the King and his courtiers are much relieved that the Arab Spring did
not lead to the creation of functioning democracies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen,
Bahrain, Libya, or Syria. Better still, from their perspective, rival Islamist
regimes that emerged proved to be either incompetent and easily overthrown (as with
Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi), or without appeal to others (as in Tunisia).
Nevertheless, the Arab Spring revolutions did undermine the pillars of the regional
status quo, whose construction and maintenance the Kingdom had underwritten with its
petrodollars. The uprisings ousted reliable old allies like Hosni Mubarak, and
turned regimes such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s into implacable enemies.
Saudi Arabia’s initial response to the fracturing of the regional order was to
increase its support for those of its allies – Jordan, Lebanon, and Bahrain – that
were still standing, and to turn the Egyptian army into its proxy, leading to the
removal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government.
Since 2013, Syria has become the main focus of Saudi Arabia’s attention in the
region. Saudi rulers regard the battle between Assad and his opponents as part of
the Kingdom’s existential struggle against its main adversary, Iran. Thus, Saudi
Arabia has become the primary source of financing and weapons for Sunni rebel forces
fighting Assad’s army, which is backed heavily by Shia Iran and its proxy, the
Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia.
Despite its unusually activist foreign policy, the Kingdom has failed to bring down
Assad’s regime, partly owing to US President Barack Obama’s refusal to enforce his
“red line” concerning the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. As a result, Saudi
rulers no longer feel constrained to wait for US approval of their actions – or even
to refrain from acting against American interests.
Saudi Arabia feels a deep fear of abandonment by the US, and is acting accordingly.
The political transition at home, it seems, is being matched – for better or worse –
by a diplomatic transition in the Kingdom’s stance toward the region.
Mai Yamani’s most recent book is Cradle of Islam.
Copyright: Project Syndicate