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Saudi Arabia's succession: securing the status quo

Known as the ‘Sudairi Seven’ – a reference to their mother Hassa al-Sudairi – this segment of the Saudi dynasty has effectively controlled the kingdom since 1975, by occupying the most strategic government positions.

Carool Kersten
23 June 2012

Following the death of the Saudi Crown Prince Nayef, his brother Salman has been appointed as the new heir-apparent: the third during octogenarian King Abdullah’s seven-year reign. However, there are no indications this will affect the status quo in the supreme structure of Saudi power.  Even against the background of the tectonic changes brought about by last year’s Arab Spring, any dramatic changes in Saudi Arabia’s political course are highly unlikely.

Nayef had only become crown prince in November 2011, after the demise of his older brother Prince Sultan, the country’s long-serving defence minister. However, two years earlier, in 2009, it had already become clear that he was destined to be the next in line to succeed his octogenarian half-brother King Abdullah, when he was appointed second deputy prime minister – a position that had remained vacant since 2005, when Abdullah inherited the throne from Sultan and Nayef’s full brother, the late King Fahd.

Fahd had already been effectively incapacitated by a stroke in 1996, with then Crown Prince Abdullah acting as regent. Although this appeared to strengthen Abdullah’s position, chances of charting an independent course were curtailed by the Sultan-Nayef nexus. With Sultan also advancing in age and not in the best of health, it was 9/11 that presented Nayef with a unique opportunity to assert himself.

Joining the US-led global war on terror, he became increasingly powerful when it became evident that al-Qaeda’s tentacles extended even into the staunchly Islamic kingdom. In order to quash this embarrassing challenge to their rule, the Saudi government invested Nayef with far-reaching authority over internal security, giving him a virtual carte blanche to root out any forms of domestic dissent. As internal security was becoming increasingly a matter of international collaboration, Nayef was ideally placed to insist on exercising even more power.

His elevation to the position of second deputy prime minister would also gave him a say in foreign policy. A shrewd political operator, Nayef also cozied up to the religious establishment, politically the most influential segment outside the royal family. This again became clear, when he acted on the demands of religious leaders to hunt down the young Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari who fled to Malaysia after a controversial tweet about the Prophet Muhammad. Kashgari was extradited and Nayef gave directives for his prosecution on charges of blasphemy.

With these successive moves Nayef had not only expanded his personal influence but also consolidated the collective grip on power he and his surviving brothers have held for many decades. Although it briefly seemed their power would be on the wane under Abdullah, they are so well entrenched that there is little indication that, even with the rapid successive demise of both Sultan and Nayef, this branch of the royal family will let go any time soon.

Known as the ‘Sudairi Seven’ – a reference to their mother Hassa al-Sudairi – this segment of the Saudi dynasty has effectively controlled the kingdom since 1975, by occupying the most strategic government positions. This gives them also a disproportionate prominence within the royal family, whose extended membership now runs into the thousands.

The two oldest Sudairi brothers, Fahd and Sultan, had already been at the core of Saudi power since 1962. After then Crown Prince Faisal tightened his hold on power following a turbulent period of internal dissent in the royal family as a group of younger princes led by Prince Talal made a failed attempt to force unprecedented reforms that was nothing short of a palace revolution. Sending Talal into exile, Faisal put Fahd in charge of the interior ministry and made Sultan defence minister. Almost fifty years later, Prince Talal again caused controversy by questioning the appointment of Nayef to second deputy prime minister. Ever since, the Sudairi brothers have never relinquished their control of the interior and defence ministries. As a further assurance of their might, twenty-six year-old Salman was made governor of the capital Riyadh in 1963

Thus the Sudairi brothers were well-positioned to extend their influence even further after the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, when Fahd was made crown prince and de facto ruler, because the new King Khalid was not interested in politics. Fahd ceded the ministry of interior to his deputy Nayef, who then appointed the youngest Sudairi brother, Prince Ahmad, as his deputy. The other two remaining Sudairi brothers, Turki and Abd al-Rahman, also held successive positions in the ministry of defence but later fell from grace.  This way the Sudairi Seven ensured a ‘closed system,’ further locking themselves comfortably into their positions of absolute power when Fahd eventually became king in 1982.

For more than half a century the Sudairi Princes have been the architects of Saudi policy, securing the dynasty’s power at home, while simultaneously working towards making the kingdom the most powerful state in the Middle East. This was achieved when, in the 1970s, competitors Egypt and Iran lost their influence due to a controversial peace agreement with Israel and the fall of the Shah. By showing themselves loyal allies of the United States, they not only ensured exclusive access to a succession of American presidents, but also to lucrative government-to-government defence and security deals, as well as other generous commercial contracts. A key player in these political and diplomatic games was Prince Bandar, the talented son of defence minister Sultan, who during his more than twenty years as ambassador to Washington was a key player in US-Saudi wheeling and dealing.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Sudairi brothers began to maneouver their other sons into positions of power and influence as well. Since1985, the late King Fahd’s son Muhammad has been governor of the oil-rich Eastern Province, while another of Prince Sultan’s sons was put in charge of the strategic northern border province of Tabuk in 1987. During the Gulf War of 1990-1991 against Saddam Hussein, Sultan’s oldest son, Prince Khalid, was made the nominal head of the coalition forces liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. After a few years in the political wilderness due to clumsy business dealings he was eventually rehabilitated and given a junior ministerial position in his father’s defence department.  

The same is true of Nayef’s sons. Saud bin Nayef has served as deputy to his cousin in the Eastern Province, ambassador to Spain, assistant interior minister, and then moving up with his father to head the crown prince’s court.  It will be interesting to see what lies in store for him now. That also goes for his brother Muhammad, who has been at the interior ministry since 1999. The big question is whether he will take over from his father, or whether he will have to give way to his uncle Ahmad, who has served as deputy minister since 1975.

In the short term, the real man to watch is the new crown prince, who only took over as defence minister in November 2011, and now continues his meteoric rise by taking the second most powerful position in the land. However, also in the long run, there are a number of reasons to hedge one’s bets on Salman.  

Aside from exercising immediate political power on grounds of his five decades as governor of the capital Riyadh and now as defence minister, Salman is also the most powerful member of the royal family council. In this capacity he has been entrusted with managing the Al Saud’s dynastic affairs, such as marriage alliances and mediating in conflicts among princes. From all the Sudairi brothers, he appears to be closest to King Abdullah in terms of temperament and possibly also political outlook. Born in 1936, he is well positioned to act as a bridge between different generations of princes.  With two senior royal deaths in rapid succession this could be a crucial quality as younger princes may become increasingly impatient to move up in the chain of command.  Finally, there is also a certain flair for PR. Salman and his sons own an extensive newspaper and media empire, which gives them not only unique access to influencing public opinion, but also an opportunity to keep a finger at the pulse of current affairs. In the 1980s, one of his sons flew as an astronaut in the Space Shuttle.

All this will enable Salman to profile himself as being ‘in touch’ with changing times by presenting the more modern face of an archaic institution. At the same time, his political shrewdness honed through decades of experience at the highest echelons of Saudi politics will also ensure that his branch of the royal family will remain firmly in charge for years to come. This way, the Al Saud will continue to pre-empt any demands for liberalization that might jeopardize their power.

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