Al Saʿud Family

views updated


The ruling family of Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest and most powerful group in the country.

The king of Saudi Arabia, key government ministers, and other high officials are members of the Al Saʿud family, who control the instruments of political power and the principal sources of wealth. In this patriarchal and conservative society, women are excluded from political office, but the Al Saʿud consult with the religious establishment, wealthy merchants, and local and tribal leaders. Saudi domestic and foreign policy thus is greatly influenced by the interactions among these forces and is strongly stamped with the personalities of the king and top officials in the family. Because the family is so large, with several thousand "princes," and so diverse in outlook and interests, political divisions can be deep and struggles fierce within the ruling family, if oftentimes difficult to see from the outside. Still, it has managed to maintain its position on top of the Saudi political system by compromise, co-optation, and force.

The Foundation of the Kingdom

The ancestors of the Al Saʿud ruled towns in the central Arabian region of Najd dating back to the fifteenth century. However, the family's influence and domains grew dramatically after the amir of the town of Dirʾiyya, Muhammad ibn Saʿud, made an alliance with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in 1744. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the Al Saʿud and their allies attempted to conquer lands beyond Najd, they clashed with local and foreign groups, including the Hashimites of Hijaz, the Rashids of Jabal Shammar, and the Banu Khalid in al-Hasa, as well as Ottoman and Egyptian forces. During the late nineteenth century, the power of the Al Saʿud was eclipsed by the Rashids, who controlled most of Najd as well as
Jabal Shammar. However, beginning in 1902, Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman Al Saʿud, after living for years in exile in Kuwait, began a reconquest of his family's historical domains and those of its rivals. According to his contemporaries, the courage, intelligence, charisma, and occasional ruthlessness of Abd al-Aziz helped him win supporters and defeat opponents in his drive to expand his domains. In 1932 he proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Opposition, sometimes violent, on occasion arose to Abd al-Aziz from within the family, but the ruler managed to consolidate his preeminent role by eliminating threats from his other relatives while assuring the power of his sons, and keeping rival families such as the Rashid, the Al Shaykh, and the leading families of important tribes subordinate by marrying and divorcing many of their daughters in rapid and routine succession.

Abd al Aziz died in 1953 and was succeeded by his oldest son, Saʿud (19021969), who had been designated crown prince in 1933. Saʿud's reign has been described by analysts as exhibiting incompetence, greed, and self-indulgence, compounded by the ruler's serious medical problems. By 1958 debt and political crisis forced Saʿud to yield power, but not the crown, to his brother and rival, Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud. Once Faisal had restored the country's solvency and repaired foreign relations that Saʿud had disrupted, Saʿud thrust himself back into full power in alliance with Talal ibn Abd alAziz Al Saʿud and other brothers identified as the Free Princes, who called for a constitutional monarchy. But once more a conclave of senior princes forced Saʿud to yield power to Faisal. In 1964 Saʿud tried for a final time to reclaim the powers of his office. The senior princes, backed by the ulama, forced Saʿud's abdication on 2 November 1964.

The reign of Faisal (b. 1906) was shaped greatly by tremendous increases in oil revenues and his efforts to carry out previously neglected social and economic development projects using the framework of five-year plans. While overseeing these massive projects, Faisal tightened his grip on political power by assuming the title of prime minister as well as king and dividing key state positions among his half-brothers, thus removing any vestiges of his predecessor's influence. Some of Faisal's projects and social reforms, such as the introduction of education for girls and television broadcasting, were strongly opposed by conservative religious factions. In fact, he was assassinated in 1975 by the brother of a Saudi prince who had taken part in an antitelevision demonstration in 1965 and was shot dead by police.

Khalid ibn Abd al-Aziz (b. 1912) became king shortly after Faisal's death. The serious tensions caused by the influx of great wealth, technological and social change, royal family abuses, and a desire to maintain Islamic values that had begun to build during Faisal's reign exploded into open revolt during Khalid's. He used both force and compromise to deal with the takeover of the Grand Mosque and Shiʿite uprisings in the Eastern Province. Toward the end of his rule, failing health and competition from the crown prince, Fahd ibn Abd al-Aziz, forced him to become merely a figurehead.

Fahd (b. 1921) took over formal rule of the country after Khalid's death in 1982. Sharp drops in oil revenues during the 1980s forced Fahd to face dire economic and social questions, such as the role of the large foreign workforce, priorities for economic development, and the need to diversify the economy. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ill health prevented him from carrying out his day-today responsibilities, and so his crown prince, Abdullah ibn Abd al-Aziz, became de facto ruler.

Abdullah and the Princes

Abdullah has had to contend with increased internal opposition to the ruling family's role in the country. While some groups merely have called for reform, others have called for a violent overthrow of the Al Saʿud. Abdullah has responded by cracking down on these militant groups, incrementally increasing avenues for political participation, downplaying the kingdom's military and economic ties with the United States, and becoming an international advocate for issues important to Muslims around the world. The attacks of 11 September 2001 drew increased attention to the royal family and its complex relationship with militant Islam inside the country and worldwide. While Osama bin Ladin, has had support within Saudi Arabia, a series of deadly bomb attacks in 2003 attributed to his organization have drawn widespread popular condemnation and elicited a vigorous response from the government's security forces.

Besides the rulers, members of the Al Saʿud have held key ministry positions and played other influential roles. For example, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud (19101990), the sixth son of Abd al-Aziz, held no official positions in his later years, although he played a key role in the affairs of the kingdom as a strong-willed senior prince. When still in his twenties, Muhammad served as deputy to Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz al Saʿud, then viceroy of Hijaz (later king of Saudi Arabia). Muhammad, however, lacked a natural power base in the family and was notorious for his ungovernable rages, which led in late 1963 to his renunciation of a place in the royal succession. His younger full brother Khalid took his place. Khalid subsequently became king in 1975.

Muhammad strongly opposed his half brother Saʿud ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud, the successor to their father Ibn Saʿud, as unfit to rule. He was the only son not to swear allegiance, and from 1955 on, he led efforts to depose Saʿud in favor of Faisal, playing a major role in pressing the case to its conclusion in 1964. He gained international notoriety from the television production "Death of a Princess," which was a dramatization of the executionat his insistenceof his granddaughter, Princess Mishal, and her lover for adultery.

Sultan ibn Abd al-Aziz (b. 1924) has been deputy prime minister since 1982. Born in Riyadh, he is the next oldest full brother of King Fahd, a son of Hassa bint Ahmad Al Sudayri, the favorite wife of King Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud. He is a key part of the Al Fahdthe king and his six full brothersoften referred to in the Western press as the Sudayri Sevenwho began to consolidate their power within the Saudi royal family during the reign of Khalid.

Sultan and the other members of the Al Fahd are the first princes to build their careers through service in the bureaucracy. When Sultan was still in his early twenties, his father appointed him governor of the province of Riyadh. King Saʿud named him minister of agriculture in the first Council of Ministers in 1954. In 1960, Sultan replaced his half brother Talal, one of the Free Princes, as minister of communications. In 1962 Crown Prince Faisal, then serving as King Saʿud's prime minister, appointed Sultan defense ministerthe position that he has held for thirty years. Faisal gave Sultan great authority in determining Saudi Arabia's military needs and in filling them. He also relied extensively on his advice in general matters, in part to balance the views of conservatives in the Al Saʿud family with Sultan's progressive perspectives. After 1975, during the reign of Faisal's successor, King Khalid, Sultan became part of the inner circle of senior princes who direct the nation's course. In 1982, when Fahd became king, Sultan was made second deputy prime minister, de facto successor after Crown Prince Abdullahand likely will become king if he survives those two brothers.

Talal ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud (b. 1931), the twenty-third son of Abd al-Aziz, has been another influential member of the family. He reportedly lived an opulent lifestyle as a young man, and became comptroller of the royal household at age 19. He persuaded his father to permit him to establish a cement factory, one of the first princely ventures
in entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia. Talal also displayed early on a certain intellectual sophistication and, from a number of sources, drew ideas for liberal reforms that he intended to implement in Saudi Arabia. He may have assimilated some of these ideas from his first wife, the daughter of Lebanon's former premier, Riyad al-Sulh. When his ties to dissident army elements led in 1955 to his dismissal as minister of communications in King Saʿud's Council of Ministers, he went to Paris as ambassador (accredited both to France and Spain) and there further developed democratic constitutional concepts for Saudi Arabia.

In 1960 Saʿud named Talal minister of finance and economy. The king, though not in sympathy with Talal's ideas, saw him and his several reformist brothers as useful allies in his attempt to regain and consolidate power. Earlier, Saʿud had yielded most of his authority to Crown Prince Faisal in the monarchy's 1958 crisis. In this Talal saw an opportunity to implement his ideas for reform. Neither brother satisfied his expectations, and Saʿud forced Talal out of the cabinet after less than a year.

Talal subsequently left Saudi Arabia for Beirut, Lebanon, where in the summer of 1962 he issued a manifesto titled "Letter to a Fellow Countryman." It called for a constitutional monarchy with a national assembly, two-thirds of its members to be elected, which could propose legislation, with the king retaining veto power. In the Saudi context, such notions were radical, and when Talal proceeded to criticize the Saudi government in public, to call for the freeing of slaves and concubines, and to introduce more extreme notions such as centralized "socialism," the king took his passport. Talal's full brother Nawwaf and his half brothers Badr and Fawwaz, collectively called the Free Princes outside Saudi Arabia but self-described as Young Najd (Najd al-Fatat), gave up their passports in sympathy and joined Talal in exile in Cairo. Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to use the situation to his advantage against Saudi Arabia, hoping that the defections by the princes could lead to the monarchy's collapse.

The episode shook the Saudi ruling family severely, especially as it immediately preceded a republican coup in neighboring Yemen and the defection of officers from the Saudi Air Force to Nasser's Egypt. It strengthened the resolve of the Al Saʿud never again to permit family differences to be aired in public. The exiled princes all eventually returned, Talal doing so in 1964 and making an "admission of guilt." He has resumed a respected place in the royal family and, since 1979, has served as a special envoy to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Nayif ibn Abd al-Aziz (b. 1933) is the twenty-sixth son of Abd al-Aziz, and is a full brother of King Fahd. He is one of the six brothers of the Sudayri Seven, or Al Fahd, to hold a senior government position. He was governor of Riyadh from 1953 to 1954, and in 1970 became deputy minister of the interior when Fahd headed that ministry. Since 1975, when Fahd became crown prince and relinquished the ministry, Nayif has been minister of the interior, and the youngest of the Al Fahd, Ahmad, has been his deputy.

Nayif is known as pious and austere, though he has amassed a considerable fortune, and has been sympathetic to conservative demands for more extensive restrictions on both Saudi and foreign conduct in public. He has a special interest in the Gulf Arab states, with which he has developed close internal security ties. Fahd places special trust in Nayif and, after the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, directed him to head a committee to draft plans for a consultative council (Majlis al-Shura) that was finally implemented in 1992.

Turki ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud (b. 1934) is another brother of Fahd, and served as deputy defense minister from 1969 to 1978. The erratic behavior of his wife, which created unwelcome publicity, forced him to relinquish that post.

Fawwaz ibn Abd al-Aziz (b. 1934) was one of three Saʿud princes who publicly called for a constitutional monarchy for Saudi Arabia in 1962. In 1971, King Faisal appointed him governor of Mecca. In November 1979 the leader of the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca attacked Fawwaz for moral laxity; he resigned the governorship shortly afterward.

Saʿud ibn Faisal Al Saʿud (b. 1940) served as the country's foreign minister since 1975. The fourth son of King Faisal, Saʿud is the eldest of the four born to the king's favorite wife, Iffat. Like his full brothers, he received a Western education, earning a bachelor's degree in economics at Princeton University. His father's influence was strong as was that of his maternal uncle Kamal Adham, former head of Saudi intelligence. Following King Faisal's assassination in 1975, Saʿud assumed the position of foreign minister that was previously held by his father for over forty years. Both as crown prince and king, Fahd ibn Abd al-Aziz al Saʿud has valued his nephew Saʿud's intelligence and skill in handling foreign assignments, but their relationship is not particularly warm. Based on his strong belief in nationalism, Saʿud has seen the U.S.-Saudi relationship as excessively one-way, in Washington's favor, and has argued for a nonaligned policy. He is probably the most likely candidate among the grandsons of King Abd al-Aziz Al Saʿud to become king.

Turki ibn Faisal Al Saʿud (b. 1945) is the youngest son of Faisal by Iffat. He received his college education in the United States and did graduate studies in Islamic law at London University. He became deputy to the head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Kamal Adham, his uncle. In early 1979 Turki replaced Adham, who had taken much of the blame for failure to foresee Egypt's peace initiative with Israel succeed in the agreement called the Camp David Accords.

In November 1979 Turki distinguished himself by taking charge of the operations to regain government control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca after Islamic extremists had seized it in an effort to promote the overthrow of the monarchy. Turki has acted as a polished spokesman for Saudi Arabia's international interests. Like his father, he combines a sophisticated knowledge of the contemporary world with genuine piety and a firm belief in his country's inherent moral superiority.

see also abd al-aziz ibn saʿud al saʿud; camp david accords (1978); fahd ibn abd al-aziz al saʿud; faisal ibn abd al-aziz al saʿud; khalid ibn abd al-aziz al saʿud; majles al-shura; saudi arabia.


Bligh, Alexander. From Prince to King: Royal Succession in the House of Saʿud in the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Lees, Brian. A Handbook of the Al Saʿud Ruling Family of Saudi Arabia. London: Royal Genealogies, 1980.

Philby, H. St. J. B. Arabia. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930.

Philby, H. St. J. B. Saʿudi Arabia. London: Benn, 1955.

Al Rasheed, Madawi. A History of Saudi Arabia. New York; Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Rush, Alan de Lacy. "The Monarchy of Saudi Arabia." In Burke's Royal Families of the World, Vol. 3: Africa and the Middle East. London: Burke's Peerage, 1980.

Vassiliev, Alexei. The History of Saudi Arabia. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Winder, R. Bayly. Saudi Arabia in the Nineteenth Century. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965.

Anthony B. Toth