SAUDI ARABIA. THE PILLARS OF POWER
In Saudi Arabia, power is based on three essential elements:
- The royal family
- The clergy
- The tribes
Each one of these three powers legitimizes the others in a connected system of cause and effect. The stability of the Saudi Arabia monarchy depends on the quality of the blend between these three elements.
The Royal Family
The Saudi reign began around the year 1750. It was a product of the alliance between a tribal chief and a preacher. The chief was Mohammed al Saud, the preacher Mohammed bin Abd al Wahab. The former constituted a kingdom made of tribes, the latter gave him religious legitimization. It also seems that the two were related, since al Saud had married one of al Wahab's daughters. This was the basis for the mix of temporal power with religious legitimization that upholds the reign in Saudi Arabia today.
Initially the Wahabite's radical beliefs did not find room among many of the tribes, nor had they had much success among the Egyptians or the Ottoman empire, whom had alternatively occupied the area of the Arabic peninsula. The hardships of the Saudi reign and dynasty find their conclusion in the early '900's with the renaissance of the so-called Third Reign, under the leadership of Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Saud. The year 1932, with the designation of Abdul Aziz as King marks the birth of the Saudi dynasty as it is today.
Abdul Aziz was at the head of an large army and thanks to the religious fanaticism of his troops (they were called "Ikhwan" - which represents the first parallelism, albeit semantic, with the "Ikhwan Muslemin", the "Muslim Brothers") he conquered Riyadh. In 1924 he chased the Hashemite monarchy from the Mecca and Medina thus sealing, through the control of Islam's sacred cities, the pact between political and religious power.
Abdul Aziz was a prolific patriarch: 22 "official" wives (in groups of 4, according to Islamic law) which bore 44 children (36 males and 8 females, only 35 outlived their father) coupled with an innumerable flock of concubines and slave-girls (they would be 200, in groups of 4) with a number of natural children (about 100). The patriarch's children were the foundation of the royal family that today includes from 6 to 7 thousand princes and tens of thousands of their family members.
These princes all play a part - some more than others - in the political, commercial or military structures of the country. They uphold the centrality of dynastic power and its intrinsic support.
must also be noted that all the members of the royal family,
according to their ranking, are given "public contributions".
These benefits are extended to their family, associates and
subordinates. It is a web of privileges that will hold as long
as the kingdom has the financial means to support it. This
system promotes a parasitic relationship with the state and
the spread of corruption in general.
The Wahabite clergy
Unlike in Iran, the Saudi Wahabite hierarchy has no aims of becoming a theocracy.
In its initial form, the Wahabite doctrine did not aspire to cover a political role within society, but just a religious one. It was the founder of the Muslim Brothers, Hassan al Banna whom, initially inspired by Wahabism, introduced the political use of Islam. The same was true of his successor at the helm of the Egyptian confraternity, Sayed al Qutb, who was eliminated by Gamal Nasser in 1966.
The Wahabite clergy plays an important role in legitimizing the power of the ruling Saudi dynasty. The King governs in observance of the laws of Islam and the clergy has the role of certifying the conformity of every law or initiative with the Sharia, the Islamic law. This puts the King in a relationship of inferiority with respect to the clergy and its critique. Another important detail: The King also has a role of "Custodian of the two sacred places" (Mecca and Medina), thus concentrating upon himself both the political power and the religious legitimacy.
The cohabitation of the dynastic power and the clergy will exist as long as every part respects the boundaries of its sphere of influence and does not oppose the other. The temporal power of the King has always contrasted the extremism of orthodox Wahabism when it out-stepped its boundaries.
The existence, within the royal court of the "Supreme Council of the Ulemas", with its members appointed by the King, is an attempt to subdue the clergy to the needs of the monarchy. In Saudi Arabia the minister of justice is traditionally chosen among the descendants of Abd al Wahab. In 1993 a Ministry of Religious Affairs was founded, which checks upon the clergy, the charitable organizations and the Universities.
The Saudi dynasty originates in an eastern region of the Arabic peninsula called Hasa.
A tribal confederation that initially resided in an area called Daryah (near Riyadh) began conquering other tribes and territories. It is upon these tribal characteristics that the Saudi society is based today.
It must be said that Saudi Arabia does not have a homogeneous population. The internal part of the country, the Nejad, is inhabited by beduins, whom remain closed to the outside world and isolated. The part of the country called Hejaz, on the other hand, which is wetted by the Red sea, and Gedda, where the pilgrims transit to reach the Mecca and Medina, are inhabited by more "open" and cosmopolitan tribes. Another important region of Saudi Arabia is the Eastern Province, where the oil production in concentrated. It is inhabited by tribes that are predominantly Shiite.
Within the Saudi tribal system there exists a hierarchy of power between the various tribal confederations that support the reigning dynasty. There are the Oteiba that inhabit central Arabia and that are associated with the Saud from the reign's beginning. Then there are the Shammar, the tribe of the mother of the present King, Abdallah. Then come the Mutayr, the Qahtan and the Dawasir. The hierarchical order translated into money, powerful offices, and authority.
The tribal system is still a very important component of society. It conditions the relationships within the tribes and the ones with other tribes. The Bedouin tribes still fight over water wells and pastures. Their belligerence is often controlled by including them within the ranks of the National Guard. Yet the important aspect is that the tribal system feeds a conservative society and thus frees room for radical Islamic ideology, Wahabism.
Saudi King Abdallah
The weak spots
The first problem of the institutional Saudi system is that of regulating and insuring the passage of the dynastic power in an automatic fashion, avoiding what has often happened in the past (suffice to recall the past frictions and juxtapositions between the Sudairi clan - those born from Mohammed al Saud's favorite wife Hanna - and the other brethren).
Abdallah, the present King, is old and sick (he was born, it seems, in 1921). After the death of Sultan in 2011 and of Nayef in 2012, there are not many brothers and half-brothers left alive that he could bestow his power upon. There is Salman (77 years old), appointed inheriting Prince and vice-prime minister in June 2012. Salman is also quite ill. Then there is Muqrin, the youngest of the lot, born in 1945. Muqrin is the son of a Yemenite, probably a slave-girl, and this would imply handing the crown over to the natural son of a woman who was not married to the founder. Muqrin had been sacked from guiding the General Intelligence Department in July 2012, but lately he was designated Second Vice-Prime Minister, which theoretically puts him in the race for the dynastic succession. In fact, in the Saudi system the King is also the Prime Minister, the inheriting Prince is Vice-Prime Minister and is immediately followed by the Second Vice-Prime Minister. Muqrin has also been Governor of Medina in the past, which means that he is liked by the Wahabite clergy.
But we cannot exclude the possibility that King Abdallah might be succeeded by one of his many nephews. Among these, the one first in line seems to be Mohammed al Nayef, 53 years of age, designated Interior Minister in November 2012 (he is the nephew of Muqrin). Or perhaps Mutaibi, the son of Abdallah who heads the National Guard, which has recently been elevated to the rank of Ministry (and thus equals the rank of the Interior Ministry or of the Defense Ministry, headed by the hereditary Prince Salman). The competition is tight among the over-100 nephews of the King.
King Abdallah is well aware of the risk that contrasts might start among the pretenders to the throne, so in 2006 he constituted the so-called Council of Faithfulness (to the King) with 35 members appointed by the King (among whom sit the members of the royal court, jurists and Ulemas) that would be responsible, if need arise, for appointing the King's successor. Yet in principle, the King is still the only person that can appoint the next King. Will it be enough to avoid clashes? We do not know because this Council has never been used this far, not even for the appointment of the various hereditary Princes (Sultan and Nayef).
There are no unique regulations to designate the one who will replace Abdallah. In the past, power could be passed on depending on age and capacities among the brothers. The basic law of 1992 only says that the power should be handed down to the sons of the founder and then to the sons of the sons, etc. No more and no less. This makes it so that every succession becomes a traumatic even in the power struggle within the royal court.
The second problem is that a new generation of Saudi's could take power. A generation more open to the outside world, one that has studied and lived abroad. Men and women who know the world of internet and facebook. This would inevitably lead to a reform of Saudi society that is still frozen by the religious fanaticism of the Wahabite creed. There are strong impulses to free the country from these social bonds, even among the members of the royal court. Then there are, on the opposite front within the royal court, those that support religious orthodoxy. The succession will be a fight between reformers and conservatives (the hereditary Prince Salman is one of the latter).
Saudi society has already asked for change, regardless of who will sit in King Abdallah's throne. There have been protests and demands for more liberty. The issue has been faced - quite timidly - by the present King as well (he made slight changes in the role and functions allowed to women members of society). Yet like all other subversions of a society that is archaic, anachronistic and closed in its religious dogma, it is not possible to predict the effects of new social parameters in the Saudi context.
It is here that the second pillar of power, the religious hierarchy, comes into play. Every liberalization of society implies automatically a regression in the power of the clergy. The Wahabites have always had two different souls: one more moderate and the other more orthodox. The latter has often been in contrast with the royal court and has undergone, depending on the circumstances, its repression. The role of the clergy has been that of conditioning the royal court.
The clergy has been legitimated in this by the fact that the Sharia, the Islamic law, is the basis for Saudi law and that Wahabism is its faithful interpreter. It is among the radical wings of Wahabism that a good part of the present Islamic terrorism has proliferated (it is not a hazard that Osama Bin Laden was a Saudi). It could be hypothesized that a liberalization of society could be coupled with a decline in the power of the clergy, a condition that could hinder the stability of the reign.
Another factor is the absence of democracy in Saudi Arabia, a country without a constitution (implicitly, it would be the Koran). There are no political parties, there are no political oppositions (and those that emerge are systematically repressed). The conditioning power of the public opinion does not exist, there is no liberty of thought, if not that of obeying a royal court and an orthodox clergy. How long can this last in a world where the globalization of ideas has no more territorial bounds?
Up to today, the so-called Arab Spring did not affect
the Saudi reign, but it could. Up to today, the three pillars
of power have survived the impact with the changing world. In
Saudi Arabia, novelties run very slowly, yet they still run.