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Feature Article
2020-07-17

Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part II)

With the end of the rebellion against what was to become the ruling branch of the family, power became more concentrated then ever in the hands of a small group of senior royals. The extended period from the 1980's until the present era, when a succession of aging kings took their place on the throne, denying the next generation the opportunity to establish itself, has accelerated this process. Now, as a new crown prince waits his turn, little remains of the traditional royal family structure.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Despite the nominal victory of Ibn Saud in regaining control of Riyadh and surrounding area from the Al Rashid clan, his cousins, the sons of Saud bin Faysal, were unwilling to cede the imamate. They went into open rebellion in 1910, under the leadership of Saud's sole surviving son, Abd al-Aziz (the others had been seized and put to death in 1886 by the Rashidi governor of Riyadh after an expedition into their base of al-Kharj). Abd al-Aziz was killed in battle against the forces of Ibn Saud (the eventual king of the new Saudi state), but his son Saud became known as al-Kabir, or "the Great", as the most senior member of this branch of the family which had by now become estranged from what was effectively the ruling line. Saud was also known as al-'Arafa, after the Najdi term for camels captured in a bedouin raid but recognized by another tribe as originally belonging to them. Ibn Saud had spotted his cousins following a battle with the Rashid, and Saud al-Kabir was offered the chance of joining him or the remaining members of the "Ara'if" (plural of 'arafa), now dispersed in the Hijaz. Ibn Saud offered his favorite sister Nura in marriage and Saud al-Kabir, who was pardoned, accepted the arrangement.

Saud became one of the new king's strongest supporters, and served as a court advisor until his death in 1958. Crucially, he always took place in the family as ceremonially second in protocol after the king, a recognition that his line was, in fact, senior to the line of the king, whose own father was Abd al-Rahman, a younger brother to Saud bin Fasyal. Despite having called himself "Amir-in-exile" of the Najd from1886 until the final defeat in 1912, he became fully reconciled to the new reality, even marrying two other of of Ibn Saud's sisters, al-Jawhara and Hussa. His son Muhammad by Nura, however, became the most important member of this branch until his death in 1995. The al-Kabir line remained tightly bound to the tribes of the east. Saud's mother was Wadhba bint Hazzam of the Bani Khalid, a powerful bedouin tribe whose territory at one time extended from the Gulf coast to the interior of Najd, and he married al-Jazi bint Muhammad, also of the al-Hithlayn, who had before that been married to the king.

Despite their prior rebellion and alliance with tribes opposed to the unfolding reality of Ibn Saud's project, the Ara'if and al-Kabir branches were fully co-opted into the new power structure, bringing with them key tribal support and legitimacy. Until recently they were one of the main pillars of royal family domestic politics, reflecting the more traditional way in which shaykhly families of the bedouin had always gathered in their close, and even distant, relatives. Partly this was by design, a recognition that better decision-making and leadership came of it, and partly this was imposed by necessity, where powerful brothers and cousins demanded not to be left out. The trajectory of the Ara'if line therefore mirrors the gradual loss of inclusion for the family body. Like the 'cadet' branches (Thunayyan, Mishari, Farhan) which had long ago posed a direct and often violent challenge to whichever rival family line held power, the Ara'if were defeated and then co-opted by the ruling members. By the time the fledgling state under Ibn Saud was taking shape, there was an even sharper focus on the king and his immediate family, even if a broader group was included ceremoniously and in council.

The next crisis came in 1930 when Ibn Saud nominated his eldest son Saud as heir, and then insisted that family and tribal leaders swear fealty. Most did, but the king's brother Muhammad pointedly refused, since he considered his own son Khalid a viable alternative. Indeed, Muhammad was within his rights to challenge Saud's candidacy; by tradition and custom the best and most capable member of the family was entitled to inherit, and a case could certainly be made for Khalid's merit.

Related articles: Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part I)
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