Dossier: The Saudi Royal Family

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 28 2001 5:34 PM

Dossier: The Saudi Royal Family

Who wields power in the Saudi royal family?

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The al-Saud family has ruled Saudi Arabia since its patriarch, King Ibn Saud, founded the modern nation in 1932. The family traces its name to Muhammad Bin Saud, an 18th-century ancestor whose armies controlled central Arabia. King Ibn Saud maintained friendly relations with the United States, allowing construction of a U.S. airbase at Dhahran during World War II.

Saudi Arabia has 23 million inhabitants and about 6,000 members of the royal family. The crown passes not necessarily to the eldest of Ibn Saud's 44 sons (by 17 wives) but to the most "suitable" one, as chosen by the royal family in a secretive selection process. (Royals tend to reject heirs with extreme political views or mothers of low stature.) The chosen heir is given the title of "crown prince" and holds the position of first deputy prime minister in the king's Cabinet. Since Ibn Saud's death in 1953, four of his sons have ruled the nation. The eldest, Saud, passed the crown to Faisal in 1964, who was assassinated by a nephew in 1975. Illness reduced Faisal's successor, Khalid, to a puppet king. Then-Crown Prince Fahd wielded behind-the-scenes power until Khalid's death in 1982, when Fahd became king. (Click here for a family tree.) Fahd opened succession up to Ibn Saud's grandsons, but no one knows when the royals will begin plucking crown princes from the next generation.

King Fahd, 81, studied Arab history and literature at the palace school for princes. His résumé includes service on Ibn Saud's advisory board and the titles of interior minister and second deputy prime minister. Fahd allowed the basing of allied troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and approved the continued U.S. military presence. In 1994, he expelled Osama Bin Laden, a member of a prominent Saudi family, for financing extremists, but he made common cause that year with Yasser Arafat, an Iraq defender the Gulf War. In 1998, Fahd opposed renewed U.S. military strikes against Iraq.

When Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, another of Ibn Saud's sons, Crown Prince Abdullah, 77, assumed behind-the-scenes power. The Saudi Embassy's Web site lists no formal education for Abdullah but says he spent years "living in the desert with Bedouin tribes." A former head of the National Guard, Abdullah has paid "solidarity" visits to Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, supported the PLO politically, and strengthened relations with Iran.

Royal-family watching is an even more difficult art than Kremlin watching was during the Cold War. This much can be said of Abdullah's politics: He is deeply religious and hews closely to the kingdom's Islamic clerics. He moves more cautiously than his predecessor when engaging with the United States. In May, he protested the Bush administration's "pro-Israel" tilt by turning down an invitation to visit the White House. Yet this week, the Saudis severed diplomatic ties with the Taliban, leaving Pakistan as the last country to recognize them, and reportedly agreed to U.S. requests to use Saudi airbases for airstrikes against Afghanistan. Sources tell the New York Times that the Saudis privately offered millions of dollars to the Taliban to turn over or expel Bin Laden.

Reports allege that the royals have tapped Fahd's full brother, Prince Sultan, 76, as the future crown prince. After attending prince's school, Sultan entered government service at 16. He now holds the positions of second deputy prime minister and defense minister, and oversees the kingdom's military expansion projects. More suspicious of his Arab neighbors that Abdullah, especially Iran, Sultan's politics tend to mirror Fahd's pro-West views. In August, he canceled an annual U.S.-Saudi joint military exercise without explanation.

Sultan's son, Prince Bandar, 52, also wields considerable power as the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Bandar graduated from the British Royal Air Force College in 1968 and earned his master's degree in international public policy from Johns Hopkins in 1980. Fahd rewarded Bandar with the ambassadorship for convincing the U.S. to sell Saudi Arabia AWACs radar planes. Bandar enjoys close relations with Colin Powell and other Bush administration members. After the Sept. 11 attack, he hosted Arab ambassadors who were nervous the U.S. would declare war on Iraq or Syria.

In coming years, Abdullah, ruling as de facto king, and Sultan, as the likely crown prince, will compete to fill the royal government with full relatives to bolster their influence of their maternal clans. King Fahd had appointed his six full brothers--dubbed, with Fahd, the "Sudairi Seven" after their mother's clan--to every major post in Saudi government, and the Sudairi still hold the lion's share of power. But when the head of the kingdom's intelligence operation retired this month, he was replaced by Prince Nawaf Bin Abdel Aziz, a confidant of Abdullah, edging out one of Fahd's sons.

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