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Saudi Leadership

Muhammad bin Saud17441765
Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad bin Saud17651803
Saud bin Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad al Saud18031814
Abdullah bin Saud18141818
Turki bin Abdullah18241834
Faisal bin Turki18341865
Abdul Rahman bin Faisal18891891
Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud19021932
The Kingdom
King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud19321953
King Saud ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud19531964
King Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud19641975
King Khalid ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud19751982
King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud 1982 2005
King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud2005 2015
King Salman 2015 ..
Crown Prince Muqrin .. ..
Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad .. ..
Although the Saudi king is an absolute monarch in the sense that there are no formal, institutionalized checks on his authority, in practice his ability to rule effectively depends on his astuteness in creating and maintaining consensus within his very large, extended family. The king is the patriarch of the Al Saud, which, including all its collateral branches, numbered about 20,000 people. These persons traced their patrilineal descent to Muhammad ibn Saud, the eighteenth-century founder of the dynasty.

As one of world's last absolute monarchs, the Saudi Arabian king exercises very broad powers. He is both head of state and head of government. Ultimate authority in virtually every aspect of government rests with the king. All legislation is enacted either by royal decree or by ministerial decree, which has to be sanctioned by the king. In his capacity as prime minister, the king appoints all cabinet ministers, other senior government officials, and the governors of the provinces. In his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces, the king appoints all military officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel. He also appoints all Saudi Arabia's ambassadors and other foreign envoys. All foreign diplomats in the country are accredited to the king. In addition, the king acts as the final court of appeal and had the power of pardon.

The legitimacy of the king's rule is based on the twin pillars of religion and the dynastic history of the Al Saud. The family's most important early ancestor, Muhammad ibn Saud (1710- 65), had been a relatively minor local ruler in Najd before establishing a political and family alliance with the puritanical Muslim preacher and reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703-87) in 1744. Muhammad ibn Saud and his descendants -- the Al Saud -- ardently supported the preacher and his descendants -- the Al ash Shaykh -- and were determined to introduce a purified Islam, which opponents called Wahhabism, throughout Arabia. Religious fervor facilitated the conquest of Najd and at the height of their power in the early nineteenth century, the Al Saud had extended their control over most of the Arabian Peninsula. Subsequent conflict with the Ottoman Empire and dynastic rivalries both diminished and enhanced the political fortunes of the Al Saud throughout the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the Saudi alliance with the Al ash Shaykh endured. Through the political and military genius of King Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud), the tribes of most of the Arabian Peninsula were eventually welded together to form a single nation within a Kingdom founded upon Islam.

The modern history of Arabia is often broken into three periods that follow the fortunes of the Al Saud. The first begins with the alliance between Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and ends with the capture of Abd Allah. The second period extends from this point to the rise of the second Abd al Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern state; the third consists of the establishment and present history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

At Madina on October 27, 1986 (or 24 Safar 1407 AH in the Islamic calendar), King Fahd expressed the wish, in an official letter to Crown Prince Abdallah, that henceforth he be addressed only as 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,' and no longer as 'Your Majesty' or any other secular title.

The Council of Ministers was established by King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud in 1953. It consists of the King who is the Prime Minister, the Crown Prince who is Deputy Prime Minister, the Second Deputy Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers. Under the bylaws announced by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in September 1993, the Council is responsible for drafting and overseeing the implementation of the internal, external, financial, economic, educational and defense policies, and general affairs of the state. The Council meets weekly and is presided over by the King or one of his deputies. On August 2, 1995, King Fahd issued a Royal Decree dissolving the Council of Ministers and announcing the names of Ministers in the new Cabinet under his chairmanship.


The relatively smooth transitions following the deaths of Faisal and Khalid seemed to have resolved the issue of succession among the sons of Abd al Aziz. In 1992, however, Fahd altered the procedure for designating future kings. In the same royal decree that announced the impending appointment of a majlis, Fahd declared that the king would henceforth name and could remove the crown prince. Furthermore, the crown prince would not automatically succeed on the death of the king, but serve as provisional ruler until he, or a descendant of Abd al Aziz deemed more suitable, was enthroned.

Fahd's 1992 decree on succession established two precedents: a royal prerogative to choose and to withdraw approval for the crown prince; and an acknowledgement that the more than sixty grandsons of Abd al Aziz were legitimate claimants to the throne. The leading figures among these 'Second Generation' princes include: Prince Bandar, his brother Khalid, Mohammed (son of Fahd and governor of the Eastern Province), Prince Saud (son of King Faisal and foreign minister), his brother Turki (chief of Foreign Intelligence), Lt. Gen. Sultan (son of Prince Salman), and Mitab (son of Abdullah).

Previously, Saudi kings had not asserted the right to dismiss a designated crown prince. By proclaiming such a right, Fahd revived persistent rumors originating in the 1970s that he and his half brother Abdullah disagreed on many political issues. To forestall speculation that his intent was to remove Abdullah as crown prince and replace him with his full brother Sultan, Fahd reaffirmed Abdullah's position. However, in declaring that successor kings would be chosen from the most suitable of Abd al Aziz's sons and grandsons, Fahd implied that Abdullah or any future crown prince was not necessarily the presumed heir to the throne. The decision to include the grandsons in the selection process and as potential candidates for the throne symbolized the readiness of Fahd and his surviving brothers to pass substantive decision-making responsibilities to a younger generation of the Al Saud. However, this decision also introduced more uncertainty into the succession process. At least a dozen men of this Al Saud younger generation, including sons of Faisal, Fahd, Abdullah, and Sultan, were actively involved in the Saudi government and presumably had a personal interest in the question of succession.

King Fahd's March 1992 edict on succession initiated a contentious struggle for power. Resolved in the fall of 1996, Saudi Arabia endured three years of internecine conflict between Abdullah, the Heir Apparent and commander-in-chief of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), pitted against Prince Sultan, second deputy prime minister and after Fahd the eldest of the Sudairi Seven. In December 1995 Sultan summoned members of the Ulema to seek their sanction of his claim to the throne and to dismiss Abdullah as Commander in Chief of the National Guard. In the aftermath of the failed coup, Abdullah ordered the National Guard's well trained Bedouins to engage in highly visible military maneuvers. The prospect of Abdullah's national guard engaging the better equipped regular Saudi armed forces was intolerable. On 01 January 1996, Fahd ended the crisis by announcing that because of ill health he was temporarily transferring the powers of state to Abdullah. Since 1997, Crown Prince Abdullah had taken on much of the day-to-day responsibilities of running the government.

The United States was said by some to be hostile towards Prince Abdallah. But the US could not avoid his being crowned successor to King Fahd. Instead, the US tried to reinforce the power of the "third generation" princes educated in the United States. These included Prince Muhammad, King Fahd's favorite son and governor of the East region, who was said to be strongly opposed to fundamentalism.

Others frequently mentioned were Prince Salman, a son of Abdelaziz who had been governor of Riyadh since 1962; Prince Saud bin Faisal, a grandson of Abdelaziz and son of the late King Faisal who has been foreign minister since 1975; and his brother, Prince Turki bin Faisal, who was head of the Department of General Intelligence from 1977 through 2001, later becoming abmassador to the United States in July 2005. Others seen by some as viable candidates were two other grandsons of Abdelaziz: Prince Khalid bin Faisal, governor of Asir since 1977, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of Prince Sultan (Defense Minister and a Sudeiri) and ambassador to the United States since 1983.

On 01 August 2005 Saudi Arabia's ailing King Fahd died. The king's death was announced over the official Saudi media today. Aged in his 80's, Fahd was admitted to a hospital in May 2005, reportedly suffering from respiratory ailments. No cause of death was given. He was succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, who had managed the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom since Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995.

In November 2006, King Abdallah established an Allegiance Commission that will select future crown princes, a step designed to help formalize the selection process. A December 2007 royal decree named the initial members of the Commission, all of whom are sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons representing each branch of the descendants of the Kingdoms' founder, King Abdul Aziz. Only direct male descendants of Abdul Aziz are eligible to become crown prince or king.

The Allegiance Commission Law was touted by some foreign observers as a "reform" or innovation that reflected a desire on the part of King Abdullah to make the succession process more transparent. Some even went so far as to characterize the law as decreeing that the next king would be "elected" since members of the commission could vote to choose a candidate. However, the Al Saud themselves describe the Allegiance Commission as a codification of the unwritten rules that have governed the selection of Saudi rulers since the passing of King Abdulaziz in 1953.

Though the country defines itself as a monarchy, in practice the sons of Abdulaziz have governed through a unique system of collective rule. This leadership, probably the world's only system of government by half-brothers, is consensus-based and by nature cautious, conservative, and reactive. Though the 1992 Basic Law gave the King the sole power to appoint and relieve a Crown Prince, the process of selecting an heir always required extensive consultation with, and acceptance by, the family's senior members, usually brokered by one of the eldest.

The Allegiance Commission Law formalized these traditional practices: the Commission is made up of the princes entitled to a claim to the throne, chaired by the eldest, with protocol determined strictly by birth order, empowered to select the next rulers from among the sons and grandsons of the founding King. While attributed to King Abdullah, the Commission actually represents the family's consensus plan for gradually transferring power from the sons of Abdulaziz to his grandsons.

The law specifies that the King must formally seek the consent of the Commission to choose his successor. The Commission's 33 male members [as of 2009] included 15 of the 16 living sons of the kingdom's founder; and one son of each of the 16 deceased sons with male heirs (the King selects the son or grandson who represents each of his deceased brothers); and sons of both the current king and crown prince.

According to the law, the initiative for nominating a successor lies with the King, who can propose one, two or three candidates for Crown Prince to the Commission. Meeting behind closed doors and in deliberations kept secret, Commission members will attempt to reach consensus on the King's nominee. If this is not possible, the Commission may reject the King's nominees and propose its own candidate, whose qualifications must satisfy conditions stipulated in the Basic Law, i.e., be the "most upright" among the descendants of the founder king, rather than the most senior. If the King rejects this nominee, the Commission would vote by secret ballot to decide between its candidate and the King's candidates.

Since 1975 Saudi monarchs have appointed a second deputy prime minister to serve as next in line on the unofficial succession slate. Because of the advanced age of King AbdAllah and his half-brother Crown Prince Sultan, one of the powerful Sudairi Seven, the choice of a second deputy prime minister among Abd al Aziz's six remaining sons had increased significance, but King Abd Allah for a time chose to leave the position of second deputy prime minister vacant. In AH 1430/2009, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, leader of the Shammar branch of the Al Saud, appointed Prince Naif bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, one of the powerful Sudairi Seven, Second Deputy Premier. Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud died 16 June 2012.

As of mid-2012 there were only five likely "eligible" candidates among the remaining sons of Abdulaziz: Riyadh Governor Prince Salman (b. 1935); Royal Adviser Prince Abdulilah (b. 1938); Riyadh Vice Governor Prince Sattam (b. 1942); Vice Minister of Interior Prince Ahmed (b. 1942); and GIP Director Prince Muqrin (b. 1945). Salman was the most logical next candidate. As he was Nayif's full brother, the rest of the family might have balked at the prospect of two successive Sudayri kings if Nayif wound up as king, which he did not. While Abdulilah was next by virtue of seniority, his ill-starred government career (he was twice removed from governorships) left questions about his competency. Sattam was a dark-horse candidate who had only just begun to raise his profile during the year-long absence of Prince Salman. Ahmed had operated in Nayif's shadow as Vice Minister of Interior - the youngest of the so-called "Sudayri Seven," his candidacy might provoke objections from those opposed to further concentrating that faction's power. Last, but not looming least, stood Prince Muqrin: head of Saudi intelligence, enigmatic, constant companion of the King, and hitherto deemed unsuitable because of his "Yemeni" mother.

Most senior among the grandsons on the Allegiance Commission is Al Baha Governor Mohammed bin Saud (born in 1934), followed by Mecca Region Governor Khalid Al-Faisal (born in 1940). If they are too old to be viable candidates when the time comes, presumably other members of the Commission who also hold government positions would also be considered, such as Khalid bin Sultan, born in 1947. Beyond these, however, the field of qualified grandson-candidates would appear limited. None of the other members of the Allegiance Commission have national leadership credentials, though six are provincial governors. Outside the Commission, grandsons who have ascended to national leadership positions are few. Only two are ministers: Saud Al-Faisal (1940), and Abdulaziz bin Fahd, a minister without portfolio, among the youngest, born in 1973.

The circle of those holding ministerial rank was somewhat larger, and include governors and advisers such as Sultan bin Fahd (1952), President of Youth Welfare; Deputy SANG Commander Miteb bin Abdullah (1953); Abdulaziz bin Abdullah (1962), an adviser to the King; and Tourism Head Sultan bin Salman (1956). Other influential contenders include Assistant Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayif (1958), Assistant Petroleum Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman (1960), Deputy GIP Chief Abdulaziz bin Bandar (1951); and Mansur bin Miteb (c1950), Assistant Minister of Public Works.

The dearth of national figures among the next generation of Al Saud is striking and reflects the centralization of power and reluctance among senior princes to delegate or groom successors other than their own sons; each branch of the family has developed or been consigned to a particular fiefdom that is difficult to grow beyond. This maintains a balance of power among the princes but hampers the development of national leaders. It also makes it very difficult for any king to redistribute portfolios.

No doubt the jockeying has been under way for some time, though it is a campaign that will take place entirely behind closed doors, subject only to the Al Saud's unique, opaque, and tribal rules for consensus building. The process has been historically impervious to outside interference. If history is any guide, the candidate who emerges will be able to count on the support of his brethren, and his first priority will be consolidating his position to ensure continuation of Al Saud rule. Beyond that, like all of his predecessors, he will seek to protect Saudi interests through his Kingdom's critical partnership with the United States. In fact, the "new" generation of princes may be more inclined to do so than the current one. Among the grandsons of Abdulaziz, whatever the differences among them, nearly all shared a common experience of having studied in, and therefore presumably being favorably disposed towards, the United States.

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