October 25th, 2011
01:00 PM ET

Saudi Arabia’s old regime grows older

Editor's Note: Mai Yamani's most recent book is Cradle of Islam.

By Mai Yamani, Project Syndicate

LONDON – The contrast between the deaths, within two days of each other, of Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi and Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz is one of terminal buffoonery versus decadent gerontocracy. And their demise is likely to lead to very different outcomes: liberation for the Libyans and stagnation for the Saudis.

But the death of Sultan, at 86, marks the beginning of a critical period of domestic and foreign uncertainty for the Kingdom. After all, Sultan’s half-brother, King Abdullah, 87, is still hospitalized in Riyadh, following a major operation last month. The regime is aging and ailing, and is perceived by the population as being on life support.

Meanwhile, the succession is still being argued. Sultan’s death is the first time that the burial of a Saudi royal has been delayed to give the ruling family time to decide on the next in line – a sign of internal discord (and concord on the continuation of dynastic rule).

The Saudi regime’s stability now depends on its ability to maintain unity and establish clarity in its system of succession. With the Crown Prince’s death, schisms are particularly threatening to the Kingdom’s stability (and that of oil exports), because the ruling Al Saud have swelled to 22,000 members, which has given rise to factional clashes among increasingly numerous claimants to power.

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Sultan had already been dead – politically, that is – for the last three years; indeed, since June 2011, when he left for New York for medical treatment, young Saudis speculated on numerous Web sites that this was also literally the case.

Abdullah’s octogenarian line of successors recalls the final years of the Soviet Union, when one infirm leader after another succeeded to power for a brief period of inert rule. Many Saudi subjects feel the same pattern of continuous uncertainty and torpor.

Making matters worse, the rule of succession is ambiguous. After Abdullah succeeded his brother Fahd, who ruled for 23 years until his death in 2005, he created an Allegiance Council, an ambiguous and mysterious family body that resembled the Vatican’s College of Cardinals. But here, restrictions are not based entirely on age, but on family bloodlines. The Council included the surviving royal princes of the 43 sons of Ibn Saud, the Kingdom’s founder, and the sons of their deceased brothers – for example, the late King Faisal’s brood.

But, as Sultan’s health deteriorated, Abdullah bypassed his own creation and appointed Prince Naif, the interior minister, as a second deputy. In other words, Naif will be anointed Crown Prince. But, befitting this increasingly exsanguinous imperium, Naif, 82, is known to suffer from leukemia.

Sultan’s fortune is estimated at $270 billion, which he distributed between his sons prior to his death in order to shore up their political position in the competitive princely arena. The reality is that every senior prince has placed his favorite sons in important positions in the Kingdom. Sultan secured the defense ministry for his son Khaled, and brought back Khaled’s notorious brother, Bandar to head the Intelligence Security Council. Abdullah guaranteed his son Mitaeb’s position as head of the National Guard. The new Crown Prince-in-waiting, Naif, has established his son Mohammed as the next interior minister.

In short, despite Abdullah’s innovations in the succession process, it is an open secret that nothing guarantees a transition to a younger generation of leaders – or that an effective ruler will emerge. The story of the Al Saud’s succession struggle is no longer whispered behind closed doors. The Internet has opened a window on all of the royal family’s plots, ambitions, and double-dealings.

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The Al Saud resembles a family business, established in 1932. Ibn Saud managed to conquer and unite the vast territory of the Arabian Peninsula, give it his family name, and alienate, divide, and control his cousins and brothers in order to establish a clear and undisputed line of succession through his sons. After Ibn Saud’s death, his sons, though never entirely united, maintained enough coherence to keep the store running. That is no longer true of the thousands of princes that they produced. As the older generation dies off, the new generation has fallen to fighting in front of the customers.

Indeed, with the ratio of royals to commoners now at one to a thousand (compared to one to five million in the United Kingdom), the challenge of managing princely privileges, salaries, and demand for jobs has never been more intense. Royal perks include lifetime sinecures and domination of the civil service, which enable the princes to award contracts and receive commissions on top of their salaries.

So the Saudi regime is divided, its legitimacy is questioned, and sectarian tensions are growing. Moreover, while oil-export revenue is booming, the neighborhood is in revolutionary flames.

In the short term, the iron-fisted Naif, as Crown Prince, will push the Kingdom into greater repression, in part by strengthening the hardline Wahhabi clerics’ place in the country’s power nexus. Magnificent sums of money, backed by Wahhabi dogma, will be deployed to ensure popular submission and silence. Whereas Abdullah at least talked about reform (though with no real consequences), Naif can barely bring himself to utter the word.

Denial remains the Saudi rulers’ dominant mindset. The royals believe that custodianship of Islam’s holy places gives them a special status in the Arab world, and that no revolution can touch them. And, if anyone tries, they will follow Naif’s counsel: “What we took by the sword we will hold by the sword.”

Throughout the region, newly mobilized (and thus empowered) Arab youth are trying to move their countries towards reform and liberalization. Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, is moving in the opposite direction.

The views expressed in this article are solely those Mai Yamani. Copyright: Project Syndicate.

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Topics: Saudi Arabia

soundoff (63 Responses)
  1. Abdel

    The Saudis should all convert to Christianity and then they will be free people. Islam is backward, hateful and intolerant and unless the muslims turn their back on islam, they will always live in the middle ages.being full of hate and resentments..

    November 3, 2011 at 2:28 am | Reply
  2. Hani

    no source !

    November 4, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  3. محب الأنسانية

    بغض النظر عما ذكرته الأخت مي , أذا كان صحيحا أم لا.

    لكن السؤال الكبير الذي يدور في ذهن كل مواطن يعرف عملية الجمع والضرب هو

    أين تذهب أموال البترول؟

    عدم الأجابة على هذا السؤال يفتح الكثير من الأقاويل ويزيد من غضب الشعب تجاه العائلة الحاكمة.

    November 6, 2011 at 12:51 am | Reply
  4. محب الأنسانية

    No matter what the sister Mai said, if it is true or not.

    But the big question that is going on in the mind of every Saudi citizen who knows the process of addition and multiplication is

    Where the oil money go?

    Ignoring the answer to this question opens a lot of rumors and increases people's anger towards the ruling family

    November 6, 2011 at 12:58 am | Reply
  5. adel

    it is our mony thefes

    November 6, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  6. saudi

    270 billion enough to build a new country!!
    simply,all the stupid royal family are "THIEFS"
    BTW,they are teaching us how to work for the paradise by neglecting the life!! scrow you

    November 7, 2011 at 5:52 am | Reply
  7. ByStander

    Let's do the math, $270Billions/86years = $3'139'534'883. Astronomical, isn't it?! Imagine your new baybe born comes with $3.14Billions the moment she/he takes the first breath :)

    November 12, 2011 at 5:55 am | Reply
  8. الحق

    كل مواطن سعودي عنده بيت واخر سيارة ورصيد بالبنك لا يقل عن عشرة مليون واللي ما عنده مو سعودي اصلي طرش بحر او مخلفات حجاج

    November 12, 2011 at 9:34 am | Reply
    • قال الحق قال

      كلام حقير من انسان مستعبد زي الكلب يوم ماترميله اكل جا وراك وسبح بحمدك .الله يلعن هالاشكال هي الي خاربه البلد

      November 14, 2011 at 8:13 am | Reply
  9. dr.p

    بيت وسيارة وعشرة مليون ؟؟؟؟؟ ان اشهد إنك من الاعراب ....المستعربة والتي تعلمت العربية من قبل . ..... اجل وش سعودي اصلي وطرش بحر وطرش بعر . دول العالم تفتخر بان لها تاريخ بالالالالاف السنيين وانت ووجهك مستانس بثمانيين سنة

    November 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  10. Say the truth

    When you say the right word does not distinguish between the nationality or anything
    Prince Sultan, may God have mercy on him was a man of goodness and peace and we must say good
    How that man of the Basma planted in the faces of children around the world Vzra God smile on his face that passed away.
    For the funds are proceeds of money and no one came strictly brought to book Where The draft of the good that has left so many fingerprints in various countries around the world.
    For those who Ihaspunh you hold yourselves first

    November 19, 2011 at 4:49 am | Reply
  11. محب آل سعود

    الله يشفيكم تكلمون من جدكم هههههه يمكن ضلمونا بس لولاهم كان مافي امن ولا ايمان وبعدين مثل ما قال محب الأنسانية وين راحت اموال البترول ولولاهم كان كل واحد على باب بيته بالرشاش خايف والا الان ابن رشيد الضالم يحكمنا وبالله فكروا زين وش احسن حكم آل سعود والا ابن رشيد وبعدين من جدك احمد ربك انك عندك بيت يحميك والرسول صلى الله عليه وسلم قال مَنْ أَصْبَحَ مِنْكُمْ آمِنًا فِي سِرْبِهِ ، مُعَافًى فِي جَسَدِهِ ، عِنْدَهُ قُوتُ يَوْمِهِ ، فَكَأَنَّمَا حِيزَتْ لَهُ الدُّنْيَا يكفيك الحديث هذا بس بني ادم طماع لو اتاه واديان من ذهب قال ليت لهما ثالث ههههههههههههه الله يشفيكم بس ههه وبعدين تعال يا نواف العنزي مو تقول انك فقير طيب كيف جاك نت هههههههه لا وتقول اطلقوا الاسرى طيب ليش اسروهم لانهم فعلوا غلط فكر زين قبل تتكلم

    December 11, 2011 at 9:02 am | Reply
  12. Biref

    يا اخي لولا الله ثم لولاهم ما عشنا بهذا النعيم , ولولا الله ثم لولاهم لما عشان في هذا الامن والامان ولولا الله ثم لولاهم لكنا إلى
    الان نعيش الجهل والخرافات الدينية , فهم الوحيدين الذين قاموا بمناصرة دعوة الامام محمد بن عبدالوهاب.

    بعض الناس امره غريب , يقول لا تصدق الامريكان تراهم يكذبون ونصابين
    ونتفاجأ انه يصدقهم بهالخبر , وش هالتناقض الغريب !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    لا يوجد مصادر موثوقه لهذا الخبر ولا يوجد أيضاً ما يثبت صحته.

    فقد قال رحمه الله : الكلام يطير بالهوا

    رحمك الله يا سلطان الخير واسنكنك فسيح جناته

    God Bless your soul prince Sultan.

    December 17, 2011 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • Brnayou

      I'm really surprised, look who is talking, looks like Dalai Lama's daughter. Did you forget or pretending ? From where all the hundred millions that you and your father spending around the world ? I guess from his salaries. What about the commissions your father gained from each single petrol parole KSA sold. Which agency you and your father serving now ? CIA or M I 6 ? I wonder what was the price your family paid to be slaves? Against history, slaves pay hi prices to librate their selves but you do opposite for free. If Al Saud have an advantage, it's the blood their hands clean of it. But their disadvantage is they did not cut your father hand for the money he stolen
      حقيقة أنا مستغرب جداً، من المتكلم ؟ أهي ابنة الدلاي لاما رغم انه ليس له ابنة لعدم زواجه، هل نسيتِ ام انكِ تتظاهرين بذلك ؟ ماذا عن مئات الملايين التي تنفقها عائلتك حول العالم من العمولات التي كان والدك يتقاضاها على كل برميل نفط تبيعه السعودية . اي جهاز تخدم عائلتك الآن ؟ الـ سي آي اي
      ام الـ MI6 . على مر التاريخ عرفنا ان العبيد يدفعون اثماناً غالية ليتحرروا قد تصل لحياتهم بينما تفعلون العكس ومجاناً. اذا كان لآل سعود من ميزة فهي عدم تلطخ ايديهم بدماء معارضيهم وانت ومساوئ الرشيد مثال. ولو كان لهم من سيئة فهي عدم قطع يد والدك على الأموال التي سرقها

      January 24, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  13. سعودي

    تعرفون عايض يا شباب

    January 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  14. موظف من ذوي الدخل المهدود

    نريد دليل دامغ على هذا الأمر

    January 29, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
  15. Al oFi

    طيب هذول كم واحد من ال سعود نبي الديناصورات الخمسه او فروخهم
    الله لايبارك لهم في اعمارهم الشعب ميت جوع وهذول يتباهون بالأموال
    جعلهم من مرض في مرض
    ماني مسامح
    ماني مسامح
    ماني مسامح

    December 7, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  16. مجهووول

    في قلبي كلام بس ما ابغى اقوله عشان ما اروح ورا شمس ههههههه

    January 12, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Reply
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