In the sixties there was Among the Middle East gurus a certainty that the monarchs of the Arab world were close to extinction. King Farouk of Egypt went down in 1952. King Idris of Libya in 1969, King Feisal II of Iraq in 1958, and Imam Muhammad al Badr in 1962. But somehow the dynasties in the Arabian peninsula minus Yemen have survived and prospered. According to the experts the day of monarchs was quickly dying midst the sweep of Pan Arabism and the voice of Abdul Nasser and the “Voice of The Arabs” had Arabs from Morocco to Iraq tuned in on their transistor radios.” O Arabs! said the familiar voice (of Abdul Nasser), magically emerging from the air, “why do you not rise up against the British imperialists? Let us cast out the foreign dogs and all who are traitors to Arabism.” (Farewell to Arabia by David Holden). I was in Saudi Arabia in 1968 and heard the cry of “hurriya,” everywhere among the young. I heard groups listening to Nasser berating the running dogs of imperialism, e.g., the Saudi royal family. I too had the impression that the al Saudi dynasty was on its last legs. But here we are a half century latter and the Arabian monarchs are not only still in power but more entrenched than ever. And it is not just the oil money, which is the simplistic answer, although to be sure it has a lot to do with it.
How has this been possible? While I still have some doubts about the viability of the emirates and other small Gulf states such as the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, I have none about the Saudi state. It should actually be called the Saudi Empire as it was forged into a state by force of arms by one of the most brilliant leaders of the 20th century, Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud King of Saudi Arabia from 1932 to 1953.
He had the unique gifts of a great leader, a bigger than life persona. He could read people, especially his enemies and his fellow tribesmen. He understood their good points and especially their bad ones, particularly their fickleness and proneness to violence and endemic factionalism. He was able to control them largely due to the partnership of about 1795 between the Saudi family and that of the Wahhabi. In return for the blessings of the spiritual bonds of the Wahhabi the Sauds would take care of the state machinery. The Wahhabis sought to return Islam back to its earlier roots, eradicating the latter Islamic assimilation of saints, monuments to the dead, including the grave of Mohammad, which was vandalized after they occupied Mecca in one of their many forays to proselytize the unbelievers…… and more importantly to loot.
Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud used the Ikhwan to overrun the Husseini regime in the Hijaz region of the Arabia, and then after many decades of back and forth wars subdue the powerful Rashidi tribes of northeastern Arabia. In. subduing the tribes he used the marriage tool as a weapon to bring the tribes under in control. After each victory a fair damsel of the recent enemy tribe was produced for Abdul Aziz to marry. Thereby assimilated the blood of the other tribes, producing a blood bond.He never had more than the allotted wives at any given time., one always being in the ejection seat for divorce. According to H.C. Armstrong ( Lord of Arabia) he had over 100 wives, on one occasion, after a serious wound in battle, had his chosen bride brought to his tent to prove his prowess to worried and fearful followers that he was still fit to fight. The manner in which these girls were all brought to Ibn Saudi is not mentioned by his hagiographic biographers, H.C. Armstrong and H. St. John Philby’s two books ( Saudi Arabia, Arabian Jubilee), but in her book , Madawi Al Rasheed, ( Politics in an Arabian Oasis: The Rashidis of Saudi Arabia) makes it clear that after being vanquished the Rashidi women were coerced into marriage with the Sa’uds.
He also understood the great powers and what was possible and what not. He had understood that ruling the nomadic tribes was an impossibility, so at one point he instituted the Ikhwan system, creating a network of villages to settle nomads and create at the same time settler warriors. They were his spearhead troops and the ultimate in Wahhabi radical beliefs. They became Muslims first and Arabs second , even replacing the kaffiya head dress for the more Islamic wraparound head dress.They were his elite against the feckless Husseinis and the tough Rashidis, and later against the Yemenis of the Asir province in the south. Later, full of themselves the triumphant Ikhwanis went off the reservation into British Iraq and laid waste to the south, especially to the Shi’a who are considered infidels by the Wahhabis. Ibn Sa’ud understood he was not in the same league with the British empire and sought to punish the Ikhwan but they rebelled against him. The warlord put together an army of loyal tribesmen and Hijazis, and using modern weapons and motor vehicles, captured from the British supplied Husseinis, and destroyed the Ikhwan. Only their spirit of radical Islam and intolerance lives on. So Ibn Sa’ud set the stage for his successors and they have, for the most part, carried it on well as the Kingdom still lives.
There are a number of factors which have contributed to this long running show.
- The number of relations, i.e., princesses and Princes, and related family members to the Al Saudi family, estimated between 15000 and 30000 princes and princesses. Direct descendants get a fixed amount of up to $ 270, 000 a month, Ibn Saudi had more than 40 sons and even more daughters. When princes and princesses marry that receive about 0ne to three million to build their cottages. And children and grand children receive lower amounts but in all about two billion dollars is is the total of royal largess. But put in perspective, it is less than one percent of the Gross Budget. Think of it in terms of the pork barrel items put in congressional, spending bills to pay off individual and corporate financial backers.
- Using Saudi family members and relatives to fill government, diplomatic and military leadership roles. For instance there are 13 provinces within the Saudi Kingdom. All are filled by the central government in Riyadh and are are members of the Saudi family. In addition 22 Government ministries are mostly headed by Saudi family kin.In addition to the royal stipends they receive ministerial pay and benefits….and no doubt the normal corrupt practices of most minsters in the Arab world. Why would they wish bite the hand that feeds it?
- A bloated and generally incompetent bureaucracy, with Saudi senior civil servants who generally depend on lower level bureaucrats, some being non Saudis. This bureaucracy is unlikely to overturn a government that provides well for them and families. In fact through the Arab world, the massive bureaucracies and their paychecks are a major tool used by the rulers to keep the people quiet. As we should be aware this has Arab implications of a “deep state.” But in this case their livelihood depends of the ruling house. Change is always frightening and perhaps devastating to people who live at the whims of the absolute ruler. Despite many “Saudization” programs many of the technocrats are foreigners who couldn’t are less who runs the kingdom as long as they receive their lavish paychecks.At the bottom of the totem pole are the massive numbers of laboring people, mostly foreigners, Pakistanis, Filipinos, etc. who do the dirty work. They are happy to have a job and some money to send back to their families back home. A fairly well informed security service keeps tabs on potential domestic intrigues.
- A ruling family that gotten ahead of the clamors for more new stuff…e.g., some liberating reforms, more individual freedom, etc. Since the innovation of women announcers on radio, the establishment of TV networks, the conservative Wahhabi oppositional influence in Saudi Arabia has been contained, often bursting out on foreign soil such as the 9/11 attack on the United States. * But make no mistake , their influence and power is latent but still there and the only possibility to overturn the Saudi monarchy. The rulers from Ibn Saudi to the present king Mohammed bin Salman al Said, also known among the “informed class” as MbS. He has initiated a number of reforms, mostly for cosmetic purposes but some of consequence. His astute political views were captured in a Wikileaks message from the US Saudi embassy in which the king said,” pace and extent of reforms depend on social and and cultural reasons-reforms cannot be imposed by the Saudi Government, or their will be negative reactions and changes have to be introduced in a timely and sensitive manner.” This pretty much as been the view adhered to by the Saudi rulers since Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. Normally the political gurus would say that when absolute rulers begin to liberalize, things quickly get out of hand and the masses , once the boot is off their neck, feel no restraint. The Saudis have avoided that.
- They keep the oil flowing. Saudi oil has 15% of the worlds proven oil reserves and is the world’s largest oil exporter. At 12 million barrels a day it is at the top of oil producers. The US also produces about 12 million barrels a day, however Saudi oil is preferably because it costs less to produce and is of a higher quality, hence less expensive to refine. In the US we use about 20 million barrels per day. As a side note, the fantasists who believe in electric cars, and reducing fossil fuels etc., should not hold their breath. The idea of a”Yugo” electric car will never be appealing to Americans. The prospect of a radical nationalist or Islamist rule coming to power in Saudi Arabia is a frightening prospect to the West, despite the “odious” aspects of Saudi Arabian culture which adversely affects the sensibilities of the Western elite. So the West collectively holds their noses and worries about Saudi stability.
- The religious element. Despite moving ahead on some reforms and” progressive ” programs the Saud’s cling to their Wahhabi antecedents and promote it world wide while offering tidbits of Westernization to Western politicians who are only too eager to accept the offerings. The fact that some Saudi diplomats were involved with the (9/11) plot should not be a surprise. Not should it be that the ruling house was not aware of the conspiracy. That is the consequence of trying to ride two horses simultaneously, radical Islam and political statism.
- To me the most interesting aspect of how the Saudi rulers maintain power is their intricate system of balance of forces and decentralizing military power. Like most Arab governments the Saudis maintain two armies to balance one another. Also like most Arab countries, one is considered more reliable to maintain. the regime in power. In Saudi Arabia this is the Saudi Arabia National Guard ( SANG) made up primarily of men from the Nejd, ancestral home of the Saudis and the Ikhwan. They have been trained since the a seventies by the United States, specifically the Vinnell Corporation of Herndon Virginia. They were originally known as the “White army.” They are the praetorian guard of the Saudis and were originally trained by the British. They are a regular military force of about 125,000 backed up by a militia forces of “on call” tribesmen of the Nejd. They are not under the Ministry of Defense but rather under a separate command commanded by a member of the Royal family, Abdullah bin Bandar al Saud. He was appointed by the king Al Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud( AKA MBS). They have modern but mostly light equipment being basically a stability and personal army of the king.
The second military force is the Saudi Arabia Land Forces ( SALF) Also trained ny the United States organization (USMTMSA) but under a separate US military command (CENTCOM) . The Saudis have repeatedly refused to have the training mission for both the SANG and SALF under one command. They are drawn from all over Saudi Arabia but mostly from the Hijaz province which has never been a happy province under the Sauds. The people considering themselves civilized compared to the tribes people and Islamists of the Nejd province. They have been trained by there US since 1953. It consists of over half a million troops and they have mostly modern equipement but while the National guard is regarded as mediocre at best, the SALF is even less capable as the war in Yemen has evidenced. The SALF base camps are mostly located far from the Saudi Government center of Riyadh…. all part of the coup de etat prevention system of the Saudi regime. There are eleven divisions of internal security which ostensibly come under the minister of interior but there are others that work directly from the king. Sixteen counties contribute equipment to the Saudis and there are a number of different foreign training missions in Saudi Arabia besides the Americans which is insure that the Saudis are not entirely wedded to the US.
Finally to see how this decentralization works consider this. Say an artillery unit needs to get on the road for a training mission. Road clearance comes from the Provincial governor while the authority to go on the mission comes from the Minister of Defense, but they also need to get the approval off the Saudi Army Area Commander who owns the real estate and ammunition bunkers from which the unit needs to draw ammo. The idea that all these commanders, with many being members of the royal family, will act in unity to overthrow the regime is pretty hard to imagine.
- Also the deadly attack of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Ikhwan believers outdoing the Wahhabis in in Islamist purity. . It happened in 1979 when radical insurgents some from the national guard seized the Mosque filled with pilgrims. Using tear gas and “advised” by French commandoes it took two weeks to root them out. The leader Juhayman al Oteibi and 66 followers were captured and later beheaded. But their insurrection did push the Saudi King Khaled to reverse several reforms fearing more Islamist attacks.