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Feature Article

A Royal in Morocco: The Strange Case of Princess Fahda al-Hithlayn

News of the lavish Moroccan holiday of Fahda, the wife of Saudi King Salman, seems to fly in the face of widespread reports of her supposed captivity on the orders of her own son, the crown prince. Was the sensational allegation by foreign intelligence agencies flawed, or has a family reconciliation taken place?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The rarely seen wife of the king, Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan al-Hithlayn, caused a stir in early August when she arrived in one of the royal family's favorite spots, Morocco, for summer holiday. She was preceded the day before by her daughter Hussa, once notorious for her opulent lifestyle in Paris (she fled the city pleading diplomatic immunity in 2016, after allegedly ordering a bodyguard to murder a decorator who incurred her wrath). Fahda, the third and most recent wife of the king, is the mother of six of his children, including Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), the crown prince and heir apparent.

Fahda's family history is interwoven with that of the Al Saud, being not only a member of the important Ajman tribe, once powerful in the east around al-Ahsa, but also descended from a notable Ajman chief, Dhaydan bin Hithlayn. The Ajman were key players in the struggle between the sons of Faysal bin Turki in the later years of the 19th century, when Abdallah, the designated heir, and his brother Saud, who had been put in charge of the districts to the south of the capital Riyadh, came into open conflict. Saud's mother, Dashisha bint Rakan, was a member of the Ajman, and he married into the tribe as well. Saud had the support of the Ajman and other tribes in the ongoing warfare against his brother, and after his death the Ajman revolted against the new amir, Abdallah, although the uprising was put down. (Alliance with local tribal leaders through marriage was common, and Ibn Saud, the Kingdom's founder, later took the custom to an extreme with a countless number of brief, politically expedient, marriages (often nothing more than a single night) to the daughters of bedouin shaykhs during the unification of the desert region. The tradition continued into modern times (though to a lesser extent) as succeeding kings occasionally married bedu girls from important tribal families as well.

Fahda arrived at Ibn Battuta International Airport in Tangier in the early hours of August 1st, and from Tangier, visited the main cities in the north of the country, starting with Chefchaouen and Asilah. She was accompanied by an entourage of palace officials and guards, royals, and princesses from the ruling families of the Gulf. Her stay lasted a week, during which she toured the neighboring city of Marrakech. Known as a favorite tourist destination of the world's biggest celebrities, Morocco, in particular Tangier, is also a favorite of the Saudi royals, who regularly spend their summer holidays there. The king, who has been a frequent visitor (along with previous monarchs, notably the late Abdallah), has two residences. One is located on the heights of Tangier, the "city of the strait", in the residential district of Jebel Kebir, near the royal palace. The second residence overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, not far from the cave of Hercules.

Fahda stayed at the Soulaymania Palace, located in the coastal area of Jbila, which had undergone extensive development work in 2016. Renovations on the property included the addition of new buildings, helipads and a big top tent to entertain guests. The sprawling Tangier complex near Cape Spartel, above the beaches of Jbilia, also includes its own medical facilities and luxury restaurants. It was here, famously, that her husband Salman set a record for the most expensive holiday ever when he spent over $100m on his annual stay in Morocco in 2017. That trip was said to account for 1.5 percent of the country's annual foreign-tourism revenue. Arriving with an entourage of over 1,000 people, and staying at the 74-acre, purpose-built summer palace, he enjoyed the use of 100 black Mercedes and Range Rovers that were on call to escort him and the royal party around town. Another royal famous for his Moroccan stays was a former crown prince, and Salman's brother, Sultan, who had a palace in Agadir. Sultan spent much of 2009 there following treatment for cancer in the United States.

Related articles: Reform, Crackdown and Succession: Continuity or Disruption?
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Page 2: rumors and innuendo, or cultural misunderstanding?
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Past Feature Articles
Reform, Crackdown and Succession: Continuity or Disruption?

As the crown prince and de facto regent Muhammad bin Salman presses ahead with an ambitious program of social and structural reforms, it is often assumed that he is pursuing a radically vision than that preferred by his more conservative father, King Salman. A closer look, however, reveals that the two are in fact closely aligned.

The Qur'anic Vision of Muhammad bin Salman: Conviction or Politics?

Behind the spate of reforms introduced by the crown prince is an influential group of Islamic scholars holding that only the Qur'an is the source of divine law, while much of the literature of 'hadith' is suspect. So far, the younger generation has embraced his reforms, but the change in outlook represents a profound rift with the Kingdom's past.

Spectacle and Ceremony: Honoring Tradition or Managing Expectation?

Bursting with pomp and circumstance, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, and later the coronation of her heir, King Charles III, were monumental productions involving the full apparatus of state, broadcast live to the world (with the taxpayer footing the bill). In contrast, the funeral of Saudi kings and the accession of a new monarch are swift and simple affairs, grounded in the Kingdom's austere brand of Islam and the royal family's tribal roots.

Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part IV)

After King Salman ascended the throne, his son Muhammad began consolidating power, presuming himself the next in line. Having eliminated his rivals and becoming effectively immune from future challenge, he has cast aside the guidelines and traditions governing the process of succession. But does the ambitious exercise to reset the political dynamic represent merely a course correction for an outdated system, or does it forebode something more sinister?

Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part III)

A generation of royals brought up to believe that each would rule in turn was unwilling to accept that this could never be realized in practice, while factional rivalries complicated the dynamics of what had been an informal process of consensus building within the family.