Realizing that his era is coming to an end, King Abdullah has rearranged the deck of cards to ensure that his wing of the ruling family remains in power after he no longer rules.
King Abdullah has placed his sons and other trusted second generation princes in key positions primarily to secure the House of Saud’s supremacy and perpetual rule. Additionally, the king and his royal supporters are determined to deny the Sudari clan the possibility of regaining control over the country.
The Sudari clan consists of seven full brothers including current Crown Prince Salman and his diseased brothers, former kings Faisal and Fahd and former Defense and Interior Ministers Sultan and Naif, among others.
The Sudairis excluded other princes (including the current king) and controlled the state’s domestic and foreign affairs between 1964 and 2012. They were loathed for their iron-fisted policies and adamant opposition to any reforms that could have led to power sharing, even with other princes, let alone with the populace.
In May 2013, the aging King appointed his son Mitab minister of the National Guard, a well-armed cadre of ferocious loyal religious and tribal men who reflect the King’s religious and nomadic sentiments. The King promoted another son, Mishal, to the governorship of Mecca, the holiest city of 1.5 billion Muslims in December 2013.
Before that, the king appointed another son, Abdul Aziz, deputy foreign minister in July 2011.
This blatant nepotism may boomerang, given the thousands of other ambitious princes, some of whom are more experienced and qualified than the King’s sons and many of whom, including princesses, feel entitled to rule. This nepotism could fragment the tyrannical ruling family which has thus far been compelled to reach compromises privately, assuring smooth successions.
Unlike their parents and grandparents who were related to chiefs of Saudi tribes through marriage, many of the second and third generation royals were born to foreign mothers and were raised differently. Many of them are educated, exceptionally competitive and prefer a meritocracy over the seniority system that has kept royal successions publicly smooth in the past. Furthermore, the younger royals hardly know each other and many of them grew up without even seeing their fathers. These realities diminish loyalty to the family and obedience to their elders, ties that bound their ancestors.
King Abdullah is said to be assigning key positions to princes, especially his own sons and supporters within the family, who will ostensibly carry out his reform agenda after he is gone. The question that Saudi men and women who are advocating a participatory political system and social justice are asking is: what legacy of reform will King Abdullah leave behind that needs to be sustained? The answer that Saudi activists, human rights groups, social media users and even some Western observers would give is, “very little or nothing.”
Most of the steps King Abdullah has taken and been praised for have been cosmetic, designed to appease critics in the West and to silence domestic activists demanding political reform. Under pressure from the Bush Administration, then Crown Prince Abdullah (became king in 2006) arranged for deceptive municipal elections in 2005 from which women were banned from participating and where armed and security forces, as well as males below the age of 21 were not allowed to vote.
Additionally, only half of the candidates were allowed to stand for election.
The other half were appointed by the royal family to counteract any possible outcome that could have weakened total royal control over the decision-making process. To further ensure total royal domination, the elected officials were not allowed to serve those who elected them in the 2005 or subsequent 2011 elections from which women were barred again.
The other sensationalized cosmetic event that the King undertook was appointing 30 women to the Consultative Council, Majlis Al-Shura, which was first established in 1928 prior to the establishment of the Saudi state in 1932. The Council is based on nomadic tradition where the chief of a tribe receives feedback and consultation from his followers regarding communal matters. The function of the current council is a continuation of that tradition, contrary to claims that it has legislative powers.
Despite domestic and global veneration of King Abdullah as a reformer at home and a reconciler among adherents of different faiths globally, facts show that he is neither a reformer nor reconciler. While the King is said to genuinely empathize with his disenfranchised subjects’ misfortunes, for which his ruling family is responsible, his overriding objective is to keep the population subservient to his family. In fact, he may go down in history as the most anti-reform king at home and a staunch opponent to spread of democracy in Arab and Muslim countries as exemplified by his opposition to the Arab peoples’ uprising against tyrannical regimes.
The King’s other major objective is to spread and legitimize the Saudi brand of Islam in Muslim and non-Muslim communities worldwide. This is being shrewdly done under the pretext of interfaith dialogues, none of which has been held in Saudi Arabia due to official Saudi disdain for other faiths, specifically Judaism and Christianity.
While most of the so called reform initiatives undertaken by King Abdullah have been purely cosmetic, some have had positive psychological consequences. Appointing women to the toothless Shura Council, relaxing press censorship, reducing religious oppression and conducting national dialogue have created popular illusion both domestically and globally that positive change is occurring, which made King Abdullah look like a reformer. Despite people’s initial hopes that more concrete reforms would ensue, none occurred.
This is because all the changes that have been made were cosmetic and not structural. The underlying oppressive nature of the Saudi system and its institutions remain unchanged. Peaceful activists languish in prisons without charges, corruption is rampant, women are still marginalized, the male guardian system and discrimination against religious minorities are still institutionalized. Criticism of the ruling elites is considered a criminal offense, the judicial system is still arbitrary, the religious police still terrorize people, the educational system still teaches racism and intolerance and the royal family’s grip on power has never been stronger.
Until these institutions are fundamentally transformed, neither King Abdullah nor his successors can be called anything, but absolute dictators.
Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.