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Feature Article
2020-05-21

The Bay'ah and Royal Legitimacy: Misguided Ventures or Last Remaining Hope?

Reports that Prince Saud bin Abd al-Muhsin has arranged Cypriot citizenship for himself and family adds to an already grim picture of senior royals living in a state of fear over the upheaval caused by the ambitions of the country's crown prince. In particular, key members of a committee established to ensure legitimacy in the succession have been targeted in an attempt to preemptively strike a blow at potential opposition to his rise.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Saud bin Abd al-Mushin was removed from his post as Governor of Ha'il in 2017 by the king, his uncle, and appointed Special Advisor to the court, a largely meaningless role in light of his decades-long government service, including 18 years in Ha'il and over twenty years as the Deputy Amir of Makkah. Apparently seeing the writing on the wall, Saud immediately applied for a Cypriot passport for himself and six family members (wife Hala, children al-Jawhara, Nura, Faysal, Badr and Abd al-Muhsin) under that country's controversial "Golden Visa" program, which grants citizenship in exchange for minimum investments of two million euros (to satisfy the visa investment requirement, Saud and his family ordered the construction of two villas). Unremarkable in itself, his decision highlights the desperation felt at even those levels previously thought safe from what is turning out to be a slow-motion purge of rivals to the crown prince.

With the continuing drama surrounding the quest for the throne by Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), it is easy to lose sight of the key elements of the story. Since the accession of his father Salman, there has been a succession of purges, rounding up even the most prominent princes, along with businessmen, clerics and activists, notably in November 2017 when the Ritz-Carlton became a gilded prison for the out-of-favor elite. Other royals, such as Basma bint Saud or Abd al-Aziz bin Muhammad and his high-flying, billionaire son Salman have been detained without fanfare and without formal charges. Basma's offense seems to have been a too-outspoken critique of the political climate, and her pleas on Twitter for release from prison have only embarrassed the crown prince, likely worsening her situation. In the case of Salman, personal jealousy may have been a motivating factor, since he was not known to have been openly critical and posed no threat to MbS, having no influence aside from wealth. Lost among the numbers of detained, however, is the fact that key members of the so-called Allegiance Committee (bay'ah al-hayat), which nominally determines the Kingdom's line of succession, have been sidelined.

The bay'ah was set up in 2007 by the late King Abdallah to ensure that succession, previously an opaque and uncertain process, would be predictable. The fact that the prospect of gerontocracy was a longer-term threat to the survival of Al Saud rule than the personal whims of any particular monarch (since normally, at least, family consensus was paramount), lent an urgency to the need to fix the mechanism in law. Formed originally of 34 members (those sons of the founder Ibn Saud who had male offspring at the time), the primary function of the bay'ah was to choose the crown prince and heir, by involving all the branches of the family in a sort of super-consensus, a form of decision making whose roots can be traced back to the days of the bedouin tribes. Unfortunately, the Committee never worked as imagined, being sidelined immediately and becoming a rubber stamp for the king's choice of heir. The decision by Abdallah to appoint a deputy prime minister, who became a de facto crown prince-in-waiting, destroyed the very premise of the body, since it was hard to imagine any kind of genuine debate taking place in that milieu. In fact, crown princes Sultan, Nayif and Salman were all confirmed with no meaningful input from the bay'ah at all. Nonetheless, the Committee remains law (being established by decree), and dispensing with it even as a formality would provoke a crisis of legitimacy in a family which has traditionally valued stability above all. In a sense, too, the bay'ah functions as a set virtual "guardrails" in a country where absolute rule and a consequent state of uncertainty is the norm. Despite the dominance of MbS, his suppression of nearly all dissent, and the elimination of rivals, the bay'ah cannot be ignored. In accordance with his ambition, then, it must be demolished from within.

Related articles: MbS and a Surfeit of Crises: Balancing Act or the End of Disruption?
A Royal Purge, Part Two: Crisis Ahead, or Smoothing the Way?
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Past Feature Articles
MbS and a Surfeit of Crises: Balancing Act or the End of Disruption?

As the enormous economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak become apparent, the crown prince has been caught off guard. As events make the realisation of his vision more and more unlikely, will he adapt and change course in time, or double down and risk it all?

A Royal Purge, Part Two: Crisis Ahead, or Smoothing the Way?

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