Middle East

Renovating the House of Saud

Peter C. Valenti
World Press Review contributing editor
Jan. 15, 2004

Crown Prince Abdullah
Crown Prince Abdullah (Photo: Viktor Korotayev/AFP-Getty Images).
The Saudi ruling family is trying to face down an existential crisis the likes of which have never been seen before in the kingdom’s 71 years of existence. Unprecedented demonstrations, multiple bombings, violent confrontations with security forces, attempted assassinations, and economic problems have underscored the fact that the House of Saud can no longer maintain control with the same ruling formula it has used for the past decades. While an active clique of princes in the House of Saud is trying to address many of the outstanding issues of the day, it remains to be seen how much they are willing to reform and how effective that would be in any case.

Arab observers outside the kingdom seem to relish speculating on which member or branch of the House of Saud is in the ascendancy at any moment. Since King Fahd was essentially disabled by a stroke in 1995, Crown Prince Abdullah has prematurely risen into prominence as the de facto spokesperson for the royal family. He is the man U.S. President George W. Bush contacts, and he represents Saudi Arabia at Arab League Summits and other such gatherings. He also seems to be pursuing a reformist agenda. But, as many commentators have noted, he is limited by the reality that he is not king and so does not hold the absolute authority necessary to institute sweeping changes. He must work alongside many other active princes within the Saudi royal family, all with their own agendas, some working at cross-purposes with Abdullah.

Webs of Patronage
Contrary to the simplistic interpretations proffered by most Western media, the House of Saud is much more complex than a “liberal” wing pitted against a “conservative” wing. There are numerous factions. Some are more powerful than others, but all exert some influence and, most importantly, each sits astride an interlocking and descending chain of patronage that is the Saudi equivalent of political representation. In other words, in the absence of the electoral accountability of elected officials, Saudi princes and officials must assuage “constituents” who in return offer loyalty, a recruiting base, and legitimacy to members of the House of Saud. Much of this interaction between princes and their constituents is done in a capacity that is only partially public, and for this reason, the internal political workings of the Saudi government are often opaque to outside observers.

Much like U.S. congressmen trying to squeeze in “pork-barrel” legislation or grants to constituents back home, Saudi princes try to look out for their supporters. On the simplest level, each of the princes who holds a ministerial portfolio controls and patronizes his subordinates and potential contractors. Crown Prince Abdullah, for example, is also first deputy prime minister and commander of the national guard. Bearing this in mind helps make sense of the Jan. 1 report in Jidda’s pro-government Okaz that the crown prince is founding a new college of medicine for the national guard. Prince Sultan, considered second in line for the throne, is the second deputy prime minister, minister of defense and aviation, and inspector general of the kingdom. Among other positions, he is also chairman of Saudi Arabian Airlines’ board of directors. He has long been famous for ensuring large budgetary expenditures for state-of-the art military equipment, especially aircraft.

Rank and office are not the only things that matter within the House of Saud; genealogical stratification plays a key role too. The founder and first king of Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, confessed to have married more than 235 women over the course of his life as a means of cementing alliances with important tribes and former rivals. All the kings since Abd al-Aziz have been his sons, meaning brother passes the throne to brother. Abd al-Aziz is reputed to have had at least 43 sons and more than 50 daughters, most of them from a different mother and tribe. While the Saudi family identifies as the House of Saud, Saudi royals’ personal allegiances are often structured around their mothers’ affiliations. These usually determined their upbringing, education, marriage choices, and degree of affiliation with the Al al-Sheikh, or the House of al-Sheikh, who are the descendents of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th-century founder of the puritanical Muwahidun reform movement, popularly called “Wahhabism” in the West, that prevails in Saudi Arabia today.

The most powerful bloc of brothers is usually called the Sudayri faction. They hail from the Al-Sudayri tribe through matrilineal descent. King Fahd, Princes Sultan, Nayef, Salman, Abd al-Rahman, Ahmad, and Turki are all Sudayris, as was King Khalid, who died in 1982. Crown Prince Abdullah’s mother, on the other hand, hailed from the Al-Shammar tribe, which was a powerful confederation in northern Arabia. He is the only brother with this affiliation.

In practical terms, this might mean that once King Fahd dies and passes the throne to Abdullah, the Sudayri brothers and their wider personal network will have less access to financial patronage, power, and influence. Furthermore, Prince Nayef, who is the interior minister, is personally allied with various religious clergy and thus supports institutions like the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police who make sure Saudis are living up to the stringent requirements of Wahhabi Islam. This backdrop may help to place the differences between Abdullah and Nayef into sharper relief.

Other important blocs are formed by a group of sons of the former and greatly respected King Faysal, most notably represented by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal. Not only are they related to the Al al-Sheikh, they have proved themselves in various administrative positions to be savvy, incorruptible, and pragmatic. There is also a group of “Reform Princes,” notably Prince Talal and his son Walid, who have gathered an impressive array of Western-educated technocrats around them and who have long advocated a great series of political and social changes.

Guns, Drugs, Money, and Religion
The proposed changes come at a critical moment in Saudi history. The country has been living through hard times since the 1991 Gulf War. Unemployment has been hovering around 30 percent for the past 10 years, with slight variations throughout the 1990s. Personal income has seen a significant drop. Saudi Arabia’s gross democratic product per capita, adjusted for inflation, fell from $15,000 in 1980 to $9,000 in 2003. All the while, the House of Saud has swollen to 20,000 people, 30,000 if one counts auxiliary branches of the royal family. When reformers or editorials decry corruption, they are very often referring to the inordinate amount of access and control that this large royal family has over finances and employment opportunities in the kingdom.

Meanwhile the Saudi government’s counterterrorism campaign threatens to escalate into an all-out war. On Dec. 29, a car bomb exploded outside the home of an undisclosed top security official. The preceding weeks had seen other attempted assassinations, including an attack that wounded Maj. Gen. Abd al-Aziz al-Huwayrini, one of the highest-ranking officials in the Interior Ministry.

While this news boded ill at the end of the year, Saudi newspapers have also been engaged in a review of the government’s accomplishments. The Interior Ministry announced on Dec. 30 that one of the kingdom’s most-wanted terrorist suspects, Mansour ibn Muhammad Ahmad Faqih, had surrendered to the authorities. He is believed to have been involved in both the May and November attacks on housing compounds in the kingdom. Saudi authorities credit his surrender to cooperation between the security services and the media that saw Saudi television and local newspapers continually running pictures of Faqih and 26 other wanted suspects, including two Moroccans and a Yemeni. Earlier in December, another high-profile suspect was captured. A second was killed resisting arrest.

In fact, more than 600 suspects have been arrested in the past six months. Many of the raids have turned up large caches of guns and explosives. Most recently, on Dec. 3, Saudi security agents turned up a stockpile of 3,142 pounds of explosives, a grenade launcher with grenades, rocket launchers, and an SA-7 shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missile. Large sums of cash were also found. An Interior Ministry representative explained to the reformist Saudi newspaper Al-Watan on Dec. 22 that investigations have revealed that this money had come from charity boxes that had been placed “in mosques, colleges, schools, and markets, and that the boxes carried photos of war victims.” He added that “these boxes did not comply with official standards and regulations” on charities and were taking advantage of mosque-goers’ customary charitable donations.

Security officials have also pointed to real progress on Saudi Arabia’s southern front. Saudi officials have combated drug, alcohol, luxury-goods, and arms smuggling across the mountainous and porous border with Yemen for years. The May 12 bombings in Riyadh focused attention on the arms trade. Since then, the border patrol has captured more than 90,000 rounds of ammunition, 2,000 sticks of dynamite, hundreds of bazookas, scores of grenades, and more than 1,200 other, assorted weapons. Many weapons still get through, but their price is reportedly rising as the supply dwindles and the difficulty of importing them increases.

While Saudi officials are justifiably proud of the results they have achieved, some Arab writers have expressed reservations about the tactics the security forces have used to produce them. In a Nov. 28 op-ed for London’s Palestinian expatriate Al-Quds al-Arabi, Subhi Hadidi decried what he called the “disgraceful” human-rights violations allegedly perpetrated during this campaign. He noted that the crackdown had been carried out with the blessing of the Bush administration and, in some cases, the active cooperation of the FBI.

As Saudi security forces have cracked down on jihadi organizations and the trade in arms and drugs that supply them, three prominent radical clerics, Nasr al-Fahd, Ali al-Khudayr, and Ahmad al-Khaldi, have recanted. Called the “Three Takfir Sheikhs” in the Arabic press, meaning they have issued fatwas calling their political opponents infidels and sanctioning armed resistance against the government, the clerics retracted their previous fatwas after their arrest and incarceration. Al-Khaldi was quoted as telling his jihadi followers, “Put down your weapons and forsake your extreme ideas.” Both Al-Fahd’s and Al-Khudayr’s recantations were widely televised. Al-Khudayr’s repentance, in particular, made the front pages of many Arab newspapers on Nov. 18 for its high drama. Al-Khudayr told viewers he “couldn’t stop himself from crying” when he realized that his fatwas had led extremists to perpetrate the Nov. 8 bombing of the Al-Muhaya housing compound. Al-Khudayr also disavowed his previous fatwa that called the killing of Saudi security forces permissible if they were cracking down on jihadi groups, calling it “wrong and invalid.”

Cracking Down on the Clerics
On Dec. 30, London’s Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat published an interview with one of the Three Sheikhs’ erstwhile allies, Sheikh A’id ibn Abdullah al-Qarni, a well-known conservative cleric who, incidentally, also conducted the November interview with Al-Khudayr. Al-Qarni claimed that Al-Khudayr was sincere and that he had managed to get a number of his followers to reverse their positions. Al-Qarni cited this as an important development because “undoubtedly [extremist] youths take their ideas and opinions from those three sheikhs.” The Al-Sharq al-Awsat interviewer pressed Al-Qarni harder, asking if perhaps these sheikhs were dissembling; Al-Qarni opined that their repentance had been genuine. The crucial question of the interview was whether the conservative religious movement had begun to look more critically at itself after the terrorist attacks of the past six months inside Saudi Arabia. Al-Qarni responded with a long-winded version of “nobody’s perfect,” but then allowed that while some of their methods and interpretations were sound, there were “groups and parties that need to tolerate more diversity of opinion and respect others even if they differ with them, and they need to stop censuring, tyrannizing, and insulting them.” He concluded, “The problem is not in our platform, which is based on Revelation and the Shariah. The problem is in our application of these texts.”

Progressive Saudi commentators have dismissed the efforts to curtail the influence of the radical clergy as too little, too late. The one good thing to come of their repentance, Salih al-Qallab sniped in his Dec. 17 op-ed for Al-Sharq al-Awsat, has been that Saudis have seen the inherent criminality of these now repentant clergy after their rhetoric led to the latest bombings.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi Arabia has come under increasing pressure to restrict the influence of firebrand preachers. Recently, spurred by the terrorist attacks on Saudi soil, pressure has mounted from within the kingdom as well. Part of official Saudi cooperation with the FBI has included the creation of a joint task-force to investigate religious organizations and wealthy individuals with extremist ties. The Saudi government recently revoked the diplomatic status of many clerics who have traveled around the world on diplomatic passports to garner support for radical groups. In mid-December, there were unconfirmed reports in the Arabic press that all Saudi embassies around the world were ordered to close their Islamic affairs offices, which have been another outlet for radical clerics to slip through.

With so much government attention focused on security, many Saudi writers expressed the hope that democratic reform wouldn’t be neglected. In his Dec. 29 op-ed in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Mashari al-Dhayidi argued that the educational curriculum needs attention, as do economic and political issues. In his opinion, though, the tone and nature of religious rhetoric needs to be addressed first. As he put it, “Even if there had been no Sept. 11, May 12, or [Nov. 8, the date of the] Al-Muhaya bombing, it would have been imperative for us to hasten to reform religious rhetoric.” He predicted that the growing debate inside Saudi Arabia will not diminish until there is a real discussion between intellectuals and the state regarding democratization and civil society. In an implicit reference to recent announcements that there will be some kind of elections for municipal councils, Al-Dhayidi derided improvements in popular participation in the mechanics of government as too limited.

In a Dec. 30 column published in Al-Watan, Abdullah Bajad al-Utaybi noted that Al-Dhiyidi knows the dangers of fiery sermons from first-hand experience. Because of Al-Dhiyidi’s outspoken criticism of the current social and political situation, he now figures prominently on the list of “hypocrites” and “sowers of dissension” whom conservative clerics lambaste in their sermons.

Another one of these so-called “hypocrites,” Ali al-Khashiban, has repeatedly criticized both the rhetoric of conservative Saudi clerics and Saudi society as a whole for allowing it to develop. In his Nov. 14 op-ed in Al-Watan, for example, he issued a wake-up call to Saudis: “The mosque would not have bred terrorism if it had only been a place to perform the five [Islamically mandated] daily prayers; but it has been a place that agitates children and adolescents around the issues of the day, and utilizes ideas that cause them to doubt their own society, families, convictions, and even themselves.”

Kazim al-Shabib tried to add a social and psychological element to this question of the upbringing of children in his Nov. 20 op-ed in Okaz: “There are three important points to make about this violence and terrorism: First, it is a result of a weakness of character…that works along the logic of bombs and exchanges violence for dialogue. Second, this violent character bears the stamp of stages that bring it to terrorism. It is born out of violence and severity which have created fertile ground for terrorism. Elements of this fertile ground are sown by domestic violence, social violence in relations between people, and intellectual violence that repudiates the Other. We must also include political violence that manifests itself in the occupation of a nation and economic violence in the acts of international hegemons….Third, intellectual extremism results from a misguided intellectual upbringing in which a person always sees himself as the only one who is right….”

On the same day, Al-Watan printed an op-ed by Abd al-Munim Said, who brought up a sensitive connection: “There has been a great pairing in the Arab and Islamic mentality between resistance and terrorism….At times, all Arab nations have collected donations to arm these groups…to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation or to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet occupation. These same types of groups, with different faces, threaten domestic security in nearly all Arab and Islamic nations.”

2004: The Year of Saudi Democratization?
The two-pronged thrust of the Saudi government’s counterterrorism campaign has also included social and political reforms, many of which are spearheaded by Crown Prince Abdullah. In concert with joint Saudi-U.S. efforts to monitor terrorist financing by tracking funds, there have been attempts to crack down on corruption. Other initiatives, most notably the Oct. 12 announcement that Saudi Arabia will hold elections for 14 municipalities for the first time in 2004, have sought to address regional inequities and formulate political reforms. Half the members of municipal councils will be elected and the other half will be appointed.

The frightening spate of bombings inside Saudi Arabia gave added impetus for various groups to push for even greater political reforms. Since the bombings, many delegations have personally submitted petitions to Crown Prince Abdullah. He has even met with Shiite and Isma‘ili delegations. Both of these groups, which are actually different branches of Shiism (the former is also known as “Twelver Shiism” while Isma‘ilism is known as “Sevener” Shiism; a basic primer can be found here), together form perhaps 10 percent of the Saudi Arabian population but are unrecognized minorities particularly reviled by the conservative clergy for their supposedly syncretic beliefs.

Before the rapid Saudi political developments of the last month, many Arab commentators seemed convinced that the Saudi government was using delay tactics to maintain its careful historical balance between conservative domestic sentiment and its alliance with the United States. The Nov. 11 Al-Quds al-Arabi editorial correctly predicted the end of this balancing act only days after the Nov. 8 bombing of the Al-Muhaya housing compound, speculating that the attack would inspire the quarreling factions within the House of Saud to end the implicit “truce” between the government and the archconservative clergy.

Other Arab observers have argued that the November bombings were actually a reaction to the new policies the Saudis have pursued since Sept. 11 and the May bombings in Saudi Arabia. In a Nov. 14 op-ed for Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Kuwaiti journalist Wafa’i Diyab argued that Saudi Arabia saw an increase of terrorist attacks specifically because of its government’s cooperation with the United States, and noted that “[terrorism] targeting Saudi Arabia’s security targets Kuwaiti security and the security of the entire Gulf.”

Diyab was not the only one making this argument. The day before the Nov. 8 Al-Muhaya bombings, the lead editorial in Al-Quds al-Arabi commented on the almost daily news of bloody confrontations between Saudi security forces and jihadi groups. As Al-Quds al-Arabi pointed out, these deadly battles indicated that the Saudi government was a making a real effort to crack down on the various terrorist cells. The editorial also opined that it seemed that the liberal political influence on the House of Saud was in the ascendancy, as evidenced by the announcement of elections for the municipal councils. Al-Quds al-Arabi also noted that a new “intercessionist” group of conservative clerics was trying to work out an accommodation. Finally, it admonished those in the House of Saud who were trying to sideline democratization efforts by using the current security situation as an excuse.

Prince Nayef, speaking to Al-Hayat on Nov. 5 in his capacity as minister of the interior, tried just such a maneuver, separating any discussion of Saudi democratic reforms from the discussion of terrorism. The jihadis, he insisted, weren’t attacking Saudi security forces because Saudi Arabia wasn’t democratic. How could they, when they didn't believe in democracy, anyway?

Liberals inside of Saudi Arabia and the larger Arab world have broadened the focus from the jihadis to include the House of Saud’s “historical alliance” with the Wahhabis. Writing in the Kuwaiti political daily Al-Seyassah on Dec. 23, Ahmad al-Jar Allah disparaged those sheikhs who “cloak themselves in religion” and ultimately “destroy the reputation of Islam and worsen the relationship between the international community and the Islamic world, spreading antipathy and doubts.” Working against the obstinacy of this strong and vocal minority, Al-Jar Allah continued, is Crown Prince Abdullah, whose forceful and eloquent speeches denouncing extremism are rallying the “silent majority.”

The Bahraini writer Said al-Shihabi, a frequent critic of the Saudi government, agreed that the Saudi royal family must end its exclusive alliance with the Wahhabis. “[The Saudi government] supposes that its announcement that the forthcoming elections for half the seats in municipal councils…represents a huge starting point on the path of democratization,” he wrote in the Nov. 13 Al-Quds al-Arabi. “Saudi rulers, like most of the rulers in the Gulf, are incapable of understanding the overwhelming logic of giving the people the right to decide their own fate.” Al-Shihabi argued that the historical alliance of the House of Saud with the conservative Wahhabi movement was struck to unify the kingdom in the absence of secular nationalist sentiment. Since then, such sentiment has developed, diminishing the importance of the unifying Wahhabi ideology to the government. Now that many groups—liberals, Shiites, Isma‘ilis, women—are speaking up and petitioning Crown Prince Abdullah for recognition and political rights, the House of Saud must, Al-Shihabi wrote, end the privileged relationship it maintains with the conservative clergy or it will further splinter the country along factional and regional lines...at the royal family’s expense.

National Dialogue
Perhaps the Saudi royal family has taken such warnings to heart. Over the final days of December, 60 prominent intellectuals and clerics from various segments of Saudi society, including 10 women, gathered in Mecca at Crown Prince Abdullah’s request to discuss changes in Saudi political participation, judicial matters, and economic policies. The meeting, called the Convention for National Dialogue, was the second of its kind, the first being in Riyadh in June. Most strikingly, representatives of the Saudi Shiite population as well as Sufis—Islamic mystics viewed as heretics by conservative Saudi clerics—and the so-called “liberals” were in attendance.

But the convention was held amid tight security and the doors were closed to the media. This was partly because one of the conventions’ goals was to formulate a strategy for undermining extremist ideology in the kingdom and partly to encourage participants to speak freely, without worrying about media scrutiny. At the end of the convention on Dec. 31, the delegates submitted their 25 recommendations, which included the immediate reform of the academic curriculum and more freedom for the press.

Despite the past rancor between some of the groups at the convention, all participants who were interviewed described the discussion as frank and beneficial. Sheikh A‘id Abdullah al-Qarni, the conservative cleric, even told Al-Sharq al-Awsat that he was “pleased with the participation” of representatives of the Shiite, Sufi, and liberal segments of the population, and that he was happy with the presence of female participants.

For the most part, Saudi journalists shared his enthusiasm, though some observers were upset about the secrecy surrounding the event. In a Dec. 30 op-ed for Okaz, Abdullah Abu al-Samah asked how the convention could be considered “national dialogue” if it was closed to the nation. After all, he argued, these weren’t delicate international negotiations.

Saudi writer Yusuf Makki, in his Jan. 8 op-ed in the Bahraini newspaper Akhbar al-Khaleej, stressed the importance of national dialogue, but questioned its effectiveness within a Saudi society bereft of strong civic institutions. He cautioned that “dialogue penetrates deeper and is reinforced by the pioneering and constructive role of these institutions, which represent all the sectors, political positions, social classes, and interests of the many individuals of [Saudi Arabia]. The presence of civil-society institutions, as a foundation to build upon, is a precondition for the success of any real dialogue.”

Others thought it was very nice that the convention had been held, but stressed that they would judge it by its results. As Muhammad Ali al-Harfi put it in his Dec. 30 column for Al-Watan, “It is important that the dialogue continue, but the most important thing by far is for the results to be put into practice, that we get results we can see with our own two eyes...without that, there will be no value to this dialogue.”

Cleaning House in the House of Saud?
What is evident in these discussions, though not always clearly articulated, is that there are major tremors inside the House of Saud. Since the princes don’t publicly talk about the splits between the different factions, much of the Arab press relies on speculation. For example, many commentators think an obvious tension persists between Crown Prince Abdullah and Interior Minister Nayef, exemplified by feisty comments the latter made after the Al-Muhaya bombings. The current crisis is giving Abdullah the opportunity to prove his leadership and vision. His reputation as a reformer has many liberals and reformers pinning their hopes on him.

But neither the power of Abdullah nor the desire of some members of the House of Saud for reform should be overestimated, as evidenced by the government’s reaction to peaceful demonstrations in October. A series of multi-city demonstrations demanding reforms, supposedly orchestrated from London by the prominent Saudi dissident Saud al-Faqih, met with police action and the arrest of more than of 150 people, including female protestors. The Saudi authorities quickly donned their religious cloak. Abd al-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s government-appointed grand mufti, issued an Oct. 27 fatwa denouncing the protestors.

Writing from a safe distance in London the next day, Al-Quds al-Arabi’s editor mocked the fatwa as a transparent, repressive measure with no basis in the Quran. The editorial suggested that the grand mufti should instead focus his efforts on eliminating corruption and augmenting popular participation in government. If he did, perhaps there would be no need for demonstrations. In the Nov. 28 edition of the same newspaper, Subhi Hadidi came to the implicit conclusion that if the House of Saud’s answer to peaceful protests is to get the grand mufti to call them “upstart innovations, misguided, and straying from righteousness into the fire,” then unvented dissatisfaction may turn violent.

The House of Saud would do well to heed his advice.