Saudi Arabia: A New House of Al Saud


When the death of a leading Royal takes place such as the recent death of  Crown Prince Nayef or the earlier passing of Crown Prince Sultan, the Royal family is very good at circling the wagons in an impenetrable force of privacy and solace.

The Family has little time to grieve the loss of a loved family member because at the same time they have to appear united, calm and firm that the Kingdom remains under the Al Saud control and impervious to external threats.

The legacy of today’s Saudi Arabia began in 1902 when 22 year old Abdulaziz ibn Saud led a group of 50 armed men from Kuwait and in a daring night ride, seized control of Riyadh from the tribe of Rashid.

It was not until 1912 when ibn Saud inaugurated the Ikhwan (brethren), a religious brotherhood of neighborhood tribes and tasked them to conquer the rest of Arabia in the name of Wahhibism that ibn Saud’s power was seen as a governing force.

After this period, ibn Saud developed alliances in regions of the Kingdom through marriages or in some cases, pardons.  Additionally, ibn Saud realized that the Ikhwan were spiraling out of control and defeated them at the battle of Sabila in 1929.

In September 1932 ibn Saud formally declared himself the King of Saudi Arabia.  By that time he had sired 44 sons, 35 of whom survived him after his death.

Towards consolidating his role and leadership, ibn Saud assigned only his sons to government roles further cementing the dynasty and legacy of Al Saud.  Ibn Saud spread his family throughout the Kingdom in order to extend his control.

Passing of the Kingdom began its path from brother to brother.  It was not always a smooth and tranquil process in the early history.  For example, in 1964 Crown Prince Faisal challenged his brother Saud’s ability to adequately lead Saudi Arabia.  After a showdown between Saud’s Royal guard and Crown Prince Faisal’s National Guard, Saud ultimately abdicated and went into exile while Faisal took charge over the Kingdom.

Faisal’s reign as King came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated by a 26 year old nephew in 1975.  Faisal’s death came as a double shock when it was learned a member of the family was responsible.

With Faisal’s death, Khalid came to reign. This again assured that leadership was overseen by one of the many brothers.  Khalid has a reputation of being less focused of a King and preferred to defer key issues to his brother, Fahd, the Crown Prince.  Key events during Khalid’s reign included the fall of the Shah of Iran and the 1979 seige of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

During this same period, Abdullah, today’s present King, became the Commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard.  This is also the same time when Khalid seemed to be plagued by ill health instilling rumors there would again be changes to the throne.

Due to Khalid’s ill health, discussions took place during which Crown Prince Fahd planned to appointment Abdullah as Crown Prince after the death of King Khalid but only if Abdullah were willing to give up oversight of the Saudi Arabian National Guard.  Due to the power held with oversight of the Saudi Arabia National Guard, Abdullah rejected this proposal.  The Saudi Arabian National Guard personnel are recruited from tribes known to be loyal to the Al Saud family and guard the key infrastructure and oil sites throughout the Kingdom.

Khalid died in 1982 and as expected, Fahd became King.  Abdullah then became Crown Prince.  However, the dynamics which had taken place with the attempt to take control of the Saudi Arabian National Guard from Abdullah left him with a distrust of Fahd and some of his true brothers.

Fahd’s health began to deteriorate in 1995 and Abdullah began to take over more of the leading responsibilities.  However, rival princes aiming for the throne denied Abdullah any legitimacy to the title.  Finally, in August 2005, Fahd’s death was announced.

Abdullah became King and appointed Sultan as Crown Prince.  However, unlike those before him, he did not appoint a second deputy prime minister.  It is widely believed this move was made to block the Princes of the Sudairi  lineage from the throne.  Furthermore, in 2006, Abdullah established the Allegiance Council which could confirm a new Crown Prince and confirm a new King if either became incapacitated.

On succession, the King relies on other Princes to confirm his position by swearing an oath of allegiance.  Concurrently, the ulema must also declare the new King an Imam.  This dual approval further authenticates the close relationship between the House of Saud and Wahhabism.

Abdullah remains King and Salman has now moved to the position of Crown Prince.  This leaves the following senior princes to be viewed as future contenders given their positions and lineage:  Mitab, Abdulrahman, Ahmad, Sattam and Miqrim.

Today, with Abdullah in his late 80’s and Salman in his late 70’s there remains concern on how long either Royal can remain in good health.  If either’s health fails, would one be replaced with yet another ailing brother or would a provision be made allowing succession to skip to the next generation thereby offering a younger Royal who can keep the Kingdom in a position of stability.

The sons of King Faisal such as Saud, Khalid and Turki are recognized as competent leaders.  However, these men are also plagued by health issues, particularly Prince Saud who continues his position as Minister of Foreign Affairs with zest in spite of the Parkinson’s Disease which has ravaged his body.

The other key group of Princes to consider are the sons of Abdullah, Sultan, Nayef and Salman.  One could easily say Prince Mitab, Abdullah’s son, has been groomed for the future role of King since he took over control of the Saudi Arabian National Guard in 2009.  Who he has the Guard has control and loyalty.

Other names which arise as contenders to the throne are Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Prince Alwaleed Al Talal.  Neither of these two princes has a Saudi mother yet they are both credited with foresight and modernity.

Saudi Arabia’s key leadership is facing a transition at a critical time in history.  The younger generation of Saudi Arabia is prepared to take a stance for social changes in the Kingdom.  Saudi Arabia also faces the continuation of the Arab Spring around its borders and at a point to form new strategic alliances.

This is a new era of relationships and alliances between Saudi Arabia and the world.  It will be imperative for Saudi Arabia to ensure a period of consistency and stability among its highest leadership in order to retain consensus in the Kingdom.



18 Responses

  1. Thanks for the history lesson!

  2. Prince Bandar I’m sure is out. He’s not even seen anymore. Something happened there- lots of rumours, but he’s not in good standing.

    King Abdullah did ultimately appoint Prince Nayef in the number 3 slot- when both he and then Crown Prince Sultan had major health issues at the same time are were both out of country.

    I like Prince Miqrim, but no one asks me! And I think his mother may be Yemeni which would also possibly be an issue.

  3. Thanks for the lecture and the insights.

  4. very interesting and informative post, carol. i have seen the saudi succession thing on tv and radio but didn’t really comprehend it until i read your post.

    one question keeps rattling my brain: why are so many saudi royals so sick all the time and why top royals so aged. i see it in the news all the time, but they never give any reasons. i have asked my saudi friends here and they just shrug their shoulders like “i don’t know”. one said she will ask her dad and then let me know.

    she came back and said that sickness/illness is because of cousin marriages (she called it inbreeding). she said that cousin marriages (within the same tribe) are far more prevalent amongst the royals than amongst the common saudis. And as for top royals so aged, she said that in saudi culture, old age is considered a sign of wisdom, and young age is considered a sign of immaturity.

    oh well … whatever works :)-

  5. Louise, interesting question. Is the health of the Saudi over 70 royals any worse than any other group of over 70 men? Do we only hear about the sick ones?

    Intermarriage would seem to cause congenital problems more than the diseases that are cropping up in these men.

    What did happen to Prince Bandar?

  6. They are just old and that’s why they have health problems. They are age related problems not congenital. I don’t think the sons of King Abdul-Aziz are very inbred. He married many wives from all over. These are the sons of those wives. Top royals are aged because it’s going oldest brother to younger brother- and the older brothers are all in their 70’s now.

    Prince Bandar must have commited some sort of political faux pas- probably over reached his authority or something. That’s the common theme in the rumours.

  7. Louise, Saudi has a different method of succession, instead of going from parent to child, (or here of course father to son, as women are only chattel), succession goes to the next brother in line, and as Abdullah’s father had lots of wives, concubines and slaves, he has several geriatric sons still alive. This is why there won’t be a new king from a younger generation.

  8. Thanks for this great explication of Al Saud’s history. You have a good knowledge about the dynasty!

  9. oh wow .. so confusing.. what with all the sons an dtheir sons.. i actually feel sorry for the younger generation. with so so many brothers there is no way their kids will all get a chance to be king.

    the history lesson looks like1 family hold power over arabia and each member there fights for his own…ugggh what a mess.

    I suppose the newer generation is having fewer kids an dhenc ethis won’t be much of an issue inthe coming generation. how much simpler this would be if everyone had 1 or 2 kids 🙂 instead of 40!!!!! what were they thinking??

  10. Carol, your excellent analysis of the succession situation was indeed an eye-opener!

    Louise, I was somewhat shocked to hear about cousin marriages (if it is indeed true). One would think that with all the medical research on cousin marriages and prevalence of genetic diseases, saudis would have outlawed it by now. Oh well, saudi royals must know something that rest of us don’t :)-

    I had to chuckle about what your saudi friend (or her dad) said about old vs young folks …. wisdom versus immaturity. Well given that attitude of the royals, half of the royal princes don’t amount to much and don’t have any kingships in their future. Why don’t the young ones just stage a coup d’etat through palace intrigues :)-

  11. The next generation is even more huge. Most of the royals can afford as many children/wives as they like. So 44 sons had a gazillion more sons.

    Cousin marriage is only quite recently “out” in the west. Einstein was married to a cousin- and it is still legal in most states and many European countries. Given that Saudi society is pretty much a generation behind- it’s not surprising it is so prevelent here.

  12. RC,

    I get the impression that you think cousin marriages are limited only to saudi. As a matter of fact, they are quite prevalent throughout the muslim world. I know that in my own FORMER extended family in pakistan (which has disowned me since I turned kafir, and as far as they are concerned I am DEAD), over half the marriages are cousin marriages with usual widespread genetic familial defects.

    RC, just to let ya know, such marriages are based on sharia law which in turn is based on koran and hadith. As people get more educated, perhaps they will shun this practice at the pain of being ostracized by their “elders”.

    Sandy is correct in that cousin marriages are “still legal in most states and many European countries”. Although these archaic laws are still on the books, cousin marriages are practically non-existent; actually those who practice it are looked down upon and stigmatized by the society as a whole.

    Here is another excellent piece from New York Times on the aging of saudi royalty and related question of succession:

  13. I would be interested to see anything in Quran that makes cousin marriage specific to shariah law. Cousin marriage has pretty much existed everywhere. It seems to fade with more modern cultures but it has nothing to do with religion.

    Einstein is hardly “archaic”. And while first cousin marriage is out of favour in the west, second cousin is even more common- which still has potential genetic implications.

    I did find it interesting that “Christopher Robin” of Winnie the Pooh fame married a first cousin. As did Darwin and HG Wells. Johann Sebastian Bach is one I’d consider “archaic”.

    More distant cousins- but not very, would be Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Rudy Guiliani and his first wife.

  14. Sandy,

    KORAN – Cousin marriages are explicitly allowed in Islam. I don’t want to cut and paste too much, but do look up chapter 4 verse 23 of koran. According to the verse, everyone besides these relatives named in the verse can be married. Such marriages in muslim majority countries are often preferred and even encouraged in some regions.

    HADITH – Mohammad himself married a cousin, as he did with Zaynab bint Jahsh, who was not only the daughter of Umaimah bint Abd al-Muttalib, one of his father’s sisters, but was also divorced from a marriage with Mohammad’s adopted son, Zayd ibn Haritha. It was this last issue that caused the most controversy, with traditional Arab norms at the time being opposed to such marriages. Then lo and behold, a verse arrived from the skydaddy above exonerating Mohammed and sanctioning his marriage to his cousin. Please look up Sura Al-Ahzab 33:37.

  15. @ KSA: Kingship Succession Drama

    Here’s a couple more excellent analyses of the recent succession drama surrounding the kingship in saudi arabia:


    Good Riddance BY SIMON HENDERSON/Foreign Policy Magazine

    “Good Riddance! Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayef was a menace. We should be happy he’s gone, but worried about the aging House of Saud he leaves behind ….. Therein lies the fundamental problem with leadership of the kingdom: Its succession mechanism is an actuarial disaster area. Notionally, the throne should pass from brother to brother (actually usually half-brother) among the sons of Ibn Saud, who died in 1953. Only sons who are unwilling or universally accepted as being incompetent are jumped. But the system means that Saudi monarchs are getting progressively older — with all that means in terms of energy for the role and mental acuity …..

    Since Ibn Saud, the kings of Saudi Arabia have been Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah. Exact ages are disputable but, accepting that, the trend for age on accession to the throne is still unmistakable: 51, 60, 63, 61, 82. The trend line for the age at which they were appointed crown prince is similar: 31, 49, 53, 54, 59. If we add Sultan and Nayef, crown princes who died before becoming king, to the series, the problem becomes even clearer. The two princes assumed the role at 81 and 78 respectively — and Salman is still a worrying 76 years old.”


    Saudi Arabia’s Heir to the Throne: Meet Crown Prince Salman
    Is he here to stay / TIME Magazine?

  16. Ok. If you’re saying Islam allows it, that is correct. But I don’t know of any religion that prohibits it- so it doesn’t seem that relevant.

  17. Meanwhile the traditional Chinese opposite was never to marry someone with the same last name as yours. Probably based on an old reality where villages were isolated and hence made up of alot of your own family tree members. It was practical prevent genetic congential inbreeding…which wasn’t always avoided in desperately poor, highly isolated Chinese villages in mountain areas.

  18. Time of a change…some smart, educated Arabic princess or queen in those leadership ranks.

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