Thursday, 26 August 2010

Saudi Arabia - A country for Old Men?

Try as I might to learn something about everyday life in Saudi Arabia, I find myself running into the pillars of Saudi society - Islam and the Saudi royal family.  In an attempt to understand the workings of the royal family, I've been doing some reading on Wikipedia and on the Internet, trying to get my head around the stranglehold that the House of Saud has on their country. 

My conclusion is that it all boils down to money.  The House of Saud is reputed to be the wealthiest family in the world, worth countless billions of dollars.  Not hard I guess, when your family consists of thousands of people, many of whom have incredible personal wealth.  I've just learned that the infamous Al-Yamamah contract saw $90 billion dollars worth of Saudi money spent on arms bought from the UK, starting in the Thatcher-era.  Any family that has that much money to throw around is going to be hard to oppose.  More to the point, I wonder what happened to all that revenue, we could be doing with it in recession-hit Britain.

The ties between the House of Saud and Britain (as well as the USA) are legendary.  Britain is partly responsible for the Saudis gaining control of Arabia, as opposed to their rivals the Al-Rashidi.  If things had happened differently, I might be blogging about Rashidi Arabia with its capital at Ha'il.  Unfortunately for the Rashidis they backed the wrong horse, a crumbling Ottoman Empire that disappeared as quickly as they did. 

Birth of a dynasty

The main reason the Saudis gained control of Arabia was due to the leadership of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the first ruler of the modern Saudi dynasty.  Abdul Aziz was brought up mostly in exile in Kuwait, the Saudis having been defeated and Riyadh taken over by the Rashidis.  With the help of the British and support of local tribes, Abdul Aziz managed to recapture Riyadh, then all of the eastern region, Nejd and ultimately the key western region of Hejaz, with the holy sites at Medina and Makka. 

The Saudi family are followers of Salafism, better known in the West as Wahhabism, an incredibly strict and (believe it or not) austere form of Islam.  One of the first things Abdul Aziz did when he conquered the Hejaz was to destroy some important Islamic shrines in Makka, related to the relatives of the prophet Muhammad, believing this sort of worship to be akin to idolatry.  At first Abdul Aziz ruled the Nejd and Hejaz separately, eventually uniting them to form Saudi Arabia in the mid-1920's, with the blessing of the British government, on the understanding that Saudi Arabia wouldn't interfere with the British protectorates in Kuwait and Iraq.

Succession to the Saudi throne

Abdul Aziz, quite unusually, adopted a form of succession which would pass from brother to brother, rather than from father to son, as is more usual (sisters and daughters don't even come into it).  As Abdul Aziz had about forty-five sons in total, this was pretty doable, but has left Saudi Arabia of 2010 with a King (Abdullah) who is 86 years old, a proposed successor (Crown Prince Sultan) who is a sprightly 82 and Abdul Aziz's youngest surviving son (Muqran) is 65 years old (three years older than Prince Charles).  This type of succession has certainly helped the House of Saud retain their reins of power however, even I can do the math, it's obvious there will have to be a change sometime in the coming years.  If Muqran outlives the rest of them, then I guess it will be up to him to appoint a successor.

The Story so far

To date five of Abdul Aziz's sons have occupied the Saudi throne.  They are:


Abdul Aziz's second son by his first wife, Princess Wadhha of the Bani Khalid tribe.  Saud's older brother and Abdul Aziz's first son, Turki, died in the terrible flu epidemic that swept the world in 1919.  His wife was pregnant at the time he died and later gave birth to Turki's first son who, by the old system of succession, could have become Abdul Aziz's successor.  The rule of succession was changed after Turki's death.

Saud wasn't incredibly popular with the conservative powers-that-be and was more known for his extravagant spending on palaces than his good deeds.  He also tried to change the rule of succession back again, so that one of his own sons could succeed him and power would remain within his immediate family.  He appointed his own sons to positions of power, overlooking the natural rights of his half-brothers and almost bringing Saudi Arabia to the point of civil war in the early 60's before Saud was forced into exile and his younger half-brother took over.


was anti-communist and he banned trade unions in 1965.  During his reign Saudi Arabia was starting to feel the first positive effects of being in the oil business and Faisal's lasting legacy was his contribution to the 1973 oil crisis, tripling the price of oil almost overnight, Faisal was instrumental in the OPEC embargo against the West.  Events in other countries were starting to shake the foundations of Saudi society, eg. events in Libya, where Al-Gaddafi ousted the equally formidable Libyan royal family in 1969.  Faisal established incredibly close ties with Pakistan and the Pakistani city of Lyallpur was renamed Faisalabad in his honour. Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by one of his half-brother's sons, who was subsequently declared insane.


doesn't seem to have left much of a legacy and had little interest in politics, preferring to act as a symbolic head of the country.  I'm wondering if he was seen as an easy target when Iranian dissidents occupied the Grand Mosque in Makka in 1979, claiming that the existence of the Saudi Royal family was un-Islamic and that they were unworthy custodians of the two holy mosques.  No wonder he died of a heart attack in 1982.


ushered in a period of unprecedented spending, which is a stereotype many Westerners have of how a Saudi royal might behave.  Whether visiting ports in the French Riviera on his $100 million ship Abdul Aziz or flying to London on one of his many gambling trips in his $150 million Boeing 747 with an in-built fountain, he certainly made himself at home with the world's moneyed classes! Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, forcing him to delegate most of his responsibilities to the Crown Prince Abdullah, who would become his successor.


is the current King of Saudi Arabia and faces a country that has been shaken up by the activities of terrorist organisations such as Al-Queda and an economy that is desperate to diversify its industries, in preparation for a day when the oil runs out. 

As for dynastic succession, it's very easy for us in the West to sneer and pat ourselves on the back for being such clever democrats.  The reality, of course, is that we have our own political dynasties, who are much subtler about their strangehold on power.  Is it any coincidence that Mark Thatcher was rumoured to be involved in the Al-Yamamah contracts?  What about the Bush dynasty and their close connections with the House of Saud?  As far as I can tell, the Saudis have been welcomed with open arms by our ruling dynasties, eager to cash in on the fountains of wealth. 

Image credits:

The archive photo is by flickruser bedharak aka R Sameer, who is originally from Hyderabad, but now lives in London.  It shows four of Abdul Aziz's sons (and one of his grandsons) who formed a delegation to the United Nations in New York in 1947. 

The second photo is of Riyadh's Kingdom Tower, the tallest building in Saudi Arabia and a remarkable symbol of Saudi wealth.  It was taken by flickuser ~Firas who is from Qaseem in Saudi Arabia, but currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Thanks bedharak and Firas for sharing this wonderful image with us using the Creative Commons license. 
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