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Feature Article
2020-06-17

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

Concerns are mounting for the well-being of a number of detained family members, amid uncertainty over the reasons for their arrest. The Al Saud is no stranger to intra-familial struggle, as an often bloody history shows, but does the treatment of internal conflict represent a marked shift in approach?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Among the high-profile royals currently under arrest on the orders of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), Basma bint Saud and Salman bin Abd al-Aziz have captured the most media attention. Basma, who has been mildly critical of her country's policies, remains in the notorious al-Ha'ir prison, where her pleas for Ramadhan clemency went unheeded. Family members worry about her health and say they have no information about her condition. In the case of Salman, there is likewise little known, other than that he was transferred from the same prison and is now under some form of house arrest at his villa. (His father, who served for 10 years as an advisor to King Fahd, was also detained as far back as November 2018).

Mystery surrounds Salman's confinement, since he was not known to have been in any way political or outspoken. Speculation is that the crown prince was angered by a perceived outreach to Democratic members of the US Congress, when at the same time MbS was pursuing a close alliance with President Trump. Salman (nicknamed 'Ghazalan") has been involved in business, owning oil and construction enterprises, among others, inside the KSA and in several other countries, but he is known mainly as an international philanthropist. With a net worth estimated at $2.7bn, he has long had the reputation of being a "walking blank check" for funding development projects in poor countries. Now, he has embarked on a multi-million dollar lobbying effort which includes petitions to European legislators, with the aim of ratcheting up the pressure on Saudi to release him. Tapping his influential friends, Salman has hired top Washington lobbyist Robert Stryk's Sonoran Policy Group to be one of his advocates. Stryk has close connections with the US administration.

The treatment of these two royals is part of an ongoing campaign by the crown prince to consolidate power and eliminate any challenge to his supremacy, and unremarkable in light of other notable arrests and disappearances. In the context of royal family domestic politics, however, it is a shocking contrast to the traditional means of dealing with internal dissent. Not only has the family tried by every means necessary to coordinate a united front through dialogue and consensus, but even when all else has failed and reconciliation is impossible, there has been a traditional mechanism for healing the divides, in the form of co-optation. Rivals may be defeated in battle, or even murdered outright, as was the case when competing family branches fought for control, but once the earliest forms of a "state" or imamate headed by the Al Saud had begun to emerge, constant warfare was no longer viable. Indeed, the repercussions of the bloody and protracted wars between the sons of Faysal bin Turki (the direct ancestor of the current king) in the mid 19th-century reverberated decades later.

Rather than fight a never-ending rearguard action against members of rival family lines, draining resources and diverting energy, some form of accommodation was necessary. In more recent times, the need to satisfy an abundance of princely demands has been met by parceling out government portfolios and appointments, but the consolidation of power among a select group of very senior (and very rich) princes, all of whom are closely related by blood, has meant that challenges to the root structure are, in practice, too costly to be contemplated. Open conflict is unthinkable, and tensions, while occasionally bubbling to the surface, are mostly dealt with behind closed doors. Lately, the crown prince has proven a wild card, but for the last hundred years the unilateral crushing of internal dissent has been impracticable; consensus has been the preferred approach. But the spectre of a rival family branch in open rebellion still haunts the current day. The bitter struggles of the early years are not simply objects of historical study, they informed the modern Kingdom's foundation.

Related articles: The Bay'ah and Royal Legitimacy: Misguided Ventures or Last Remaining Hope?
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Commentary
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.

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?

Reports that another round of arrests had ensnared two senior princes, including the king's brother, sparked speculation that a major upheaval was underway. Was Salman really on his deathbed, and the crown prince springing into action? Was this a response to an impending coup, and a crackdown on the ringleaders? Or was this all part of a longer-term plan by the crown prince to ensure his place in succession?

Mixed Signals: Falling in Line or Falling Behind?

As the Kingdom seemingly opens up to modernization, while at the same cracking down on any kind of dissent at home, confusion abounds. Are even senior members of the royal family fully on board with the reforms of the crown prince, or are they reflexively reacting to perceived threats to the old order, imagining a state of affairs which has already been superseded by the new realities around them?

Phone Hacks And Hangers-On: Change Of Course Or Character In Action?

Tech experts have agreed with "high certainty" that the phone of billionaire Jeff Bezos was compromised, and personal data stolen, by the crown prince through messaging app trickery; there is now concern that British PM Boris Johnson may have been been similarly hacked. Does this campaign represent an intensification of Muhammad bin Salman's ongoing efforts at repression and control, or are the revelations merely an accidental glimpse into his character?

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