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Feature Article

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

With no formal mechanism in place to decide the succession after Ibn Saud, royal family politics in the decades following his death were often turbulent, as a traditional leadership style based on personal influence and loyalty gave way to the more bureaucratic structures of a modern state. Still, there was no provision for extending the succession to the next generation of princes.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

With the establishment of the Third Saudi State, the Kingdom's founder Abd al-Aziz (known as Ibn Saud in the West) turned his attention to the family legacy and his plans for succession. Saud, his second son whose mother hailed from the Banu Khalid tribe to the east, seemed the most obvious candidate. Born in 1902 while his father was leading the legendary raid on the Masmak fortress in Riyadh (the king even came to believe that he must have been born on the very day of that defining event), Saud in his youth studied under religious scholars, but also spent time among the desert tribes, where he learned the bedouin heritage, arbitration methods, and military strategy, all part of his preparation for eventual rule.

As early as his teens Saud was leading his father's forces into battle, and distinguished himself fighting against the Shammar and their allies in central and northern Najd. With his physical resemblance to the king, prowess in battle and a grounding in the bedouin tradition, Saud seemed a natural successor. He was designated vali al-ahd (heir apparent) in 1933, and then proclaimed as King in 1953, after the death of his father. The intervening years were not smooth sailing, however, as tensions between Saud and his brother Faysal began to mount. A joint 1920 military expedition into Asir and Yemen was a humiliation for Saud, as his forces became bogged down in mountainous terrain, while Faysal, in command of the army's western flank, enjoyed a resounding success. Having already conducted a state visit to England as a teenager, Faysal's star would continue to rise. He was known for his intellect and diplomatic skill, while his grounding in religious studies was nearly unsurpassed, and the fact that his mother was a direct descendant of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab gave him solid religious credentials. If anyone was to challenge Saud for supremacy, it would be Faysal.

In the end, however, it was Saud's own failings that spelled the end. Unwilling to share the leadership with his many brothers, he seemed intent on establishing his own, separate dynasty. Although the story of Ibn Saud's deathbed wish that each of his sons should follow him on the throne in their turn is apocryphal, Saud's ambition to head off his brothers and make his own offspring the sole heirs to the Kingdom was a clear departure from bedouin tradition, which only recognized hereditary rule insofar as it was supported by key members of the tribe itself, who needed to give their assent to the choice of a new leader, and it was also an outright rejection of what was an implicit understanding among the family that succession would involve the major players. In contrast to Ibn Saud's position - where he stood tall as the head of a branch of the family which now held undisputed power following his military success - the new king was surrounded by rivals who were as, if not more, capable of ruling the fledgling nation. While there remained cadet branches of the family, including the prominent Saud al-Kabir line, none by this time held any significant power or influence (although, crucially, they were involved in the decision making circle, along with important merchant families and religious scholars). Ibn Saud's brothers had been marginalized, leaving only the sons. But the problem was two-fold - there were on the one hand too many sons, and there were at the same time a growing number whose outsized power threatened to upset the dynamic.

By 1960 Saud had assumed complete control of the administration. Economic and foreign policy was in disarray, the treasury was being drained at an alarming rate, while Saud's frequent and highly-publicized trips to the gambling casinos of Monte Carlo were becoming an embarrassment to the royal family, which sought to legitimize its rule on adherence to Islamic practice (in public, at least). Senior princes began to limit his powers by shifting executive authority to Faysal (now crown prince).

Related articles: Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part I)
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Page 2: each in their turn?
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Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part I)

The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, is set to become the first of a younger generation to sit upon the throne, a transition which represents a fundamental break with both precedent and a tradition in which of the sons of the Kingdom's founder each took their place in turn. Succession in the royal family, however, is a dynamic process, a reflection of the realities of the time as well as the political environment.

Neom, The Crown Prince And Disruptive Innovation: The Collapse of Illusions?

2022 has seen the reputations of once high-flying titans of industry, media and politics left in tatters, as a veneer of carefully curated branding was stripped away to reveal the shaky foundation underlying the celebrity sizzle. Will Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, a self-proclaimed visionary and disruptor, suffer the same fate, or do his plans for a utopian future reveal an even more unsettling reality?

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October Oil Surprise: Political Interference or Market Forces?

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