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Clans and Factions

The founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia, Abd al Aziz ibn Abd ar Rahman Al Saud (1876-1953), was a grandson of the last effective nineteenth-century Saudi ruler, Faisal ibn Turki (1810- 66). More than 7,000 princes bearing that family name are alive by one 2015 estimate with some experts speculating that the real number of titled family members approaches 30,000. Every single one has to be allocated a job commensurate with his lineage creating hundreds of sinecures while conversely, talented candidates are shut out from key jobs if they do not bear the correct surname.

The most important branch of the Al Saud family is known as Al Faisal. The Al Faisal branch consisted of the patrilineal descendants of Abd al Aziz's grandfather, Faisal ibn Turki. Only males of the Al Faisal branch of the family, more than 4,000 by another estimate, are considered royalty and were accorded the title of amir (prince).

Even within the Al Faisal branch of the Al Saud family, the princes do not enjoy the same degree of influence. The several lineages within the Al Faisal branch derived from the numerous sons and grandsons of Faisal ibn Turki. His most important grandson, Abd al Aziz, married several women, each of whom bore the king one or more sons. The sons of Abd al Aziz by the same mother (full brothers) inevitably felt more affinity for one another than for their half brothers, and thus political influence within this patrilineal family actually tended to be wielded on the basis of matrilineal descent.

In addition to clans, the Al Saud has numerous political factions. The factions tend to be centered on a brother or coalition of brothers. For example, Fahd and his six full brothers have been known as the "Sudairi Seven" since the late 1970s. When Fahd became king in 1982, the Sudairi Seven emerged as the most powerful of the family factions. Five of Fahd's brothers held important government positions in the 1990s. Outside the royal family, the Sudairi Seven were regarded as the faction most favorably inclined toward economic development, political and social liberalization, and a close relationship with the United States.

In the 1990s the second most important family faction centered on Crown Prince Abd Allah, who headed the national guard. Abd Allah had no full brothers, but he cultivated close relationships with half brothers and nephews who also lacked family allies because they either had no full brothers or were isolated for some other reason. For example, in 1984 Abd Allah had appointed one of the sons of deposed King Saud as commander of the national guard in the Eastern Province. Prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Abd Allah faction had a reputation as traditionalists who opposed many of the domestic and foreign polices favored by the Al Sudairi. In particular, the Abd Allah faction criticized the kingdom's military dependence on the United States. The Abd Allah faction also was a proponent of closer relations with Iran and Syria. During the Persian Gulf War, however, Abd Allah supported the decision to permit stationing of United States troops in the country.

The more than sixty grandsons of Abd al Aziz constitute a third discernible faction within the Al Saud. Among this generation, the sons of King Faisal and King Fahd have assumed the most important positions. The principal characteristic of the junior princes was their high level of education, often including graduate studies in the United States or Europe. In fact, during the 1980s, education, rather than seniority based on age, appeared to be the major source of influence for members of this generation. Fahd appointed many of them to responsible posts as ambassadors, provincial governors, and deputy ministers. Nevertheless, in terms of family politics, it was not clear whether the junior princes constituted a unified group, and if so, whether they were more favorably inclined toward the Al Sudairi faction or the Abd Allah faction.

King Fahd usually consulted with several dozen senior princes of the four principal Al Saud clans before making major decisions. These influential princes, together with a score of leading ulama, comprised a group known as the ahl al hall wa al aqd (literally, "those who loose and bind"). The ahl al hall wa al aqd numbered 100 to 150 men, but it was not a formal institution. The most important function of the group seemed to be to provide a broad elite consensus for government policy initiatives. Nevertheless, few analysts understood the precise nature of the relationship between the monarchy and the ahl al hall wa al aqd. In the past, the group had deposed one king (Saud in 1964) and had provided the public acclamation necessary to ensure the smooth accession to the throne of Faisal, Khalid, and Fahd.

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Page last modified: 28-01-2015 20:33:36 ZULU