|Refusal to allow the
United States use of the Prince Sultan Air Base for retaliatory strikes against any Muslim
nation came as an apparent surprise to Washington. Only days before, Air Force Lt. Gen.
Charles Walk, commander of the U.S. Central Command's air operations, moved his home base
from South Carolina to Saudi Arabia.
At first glance the refusal appears a reversal of Saudi government policy, but
another explanation is more likely: It may have been the result of compromise between
pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. factions in Riyadh. After rejecting Washington's request, the
government moved quickly to sever ties with the Taliban -- appeasing the United States.
The government, however, was likely less concerned with appeasement than maintaining a
crucial political balance within the royal family and Saudi society.
The House of Saud achieves social
harmony -- solidifying its position as the kingdom's ruling family -- by maintaining a
complex system of checks and balances. This system is easily upset by change and is
therefore conservative and highly resistant to outside interference.
The royal family commands the
allegiance of various other tribes that populate the Arabian Peninsula through a system of
patronage and social spending. But within the family itself, the struggle for power is a
game of constantly shifting alliances and intrigues that impact domestic and foreign
Sons of modern-day Saudi Arabia's
founder, Abdul al Aziz al Saud, continue to reign but are split into factions. Because
Abdul al Aziz had several wives and more than 40 sons, the royal family embodies coalition
politics. Factions tend to reflect the matrilineal heritage, with full brothers usually
comprising the more powerful factions and incorporating half-brothers into their
The most powerful and certainly the
most well-known faction is perhaps the al-Sudairi Seven, the largest bloc of
full-brothers. Led by the aging King Fahd, the al-Sudairi includes Interior Minister
Prince Nayif, Defense Minister Prince Sultan, Riyadh governor Prince Salman, business
leader Prince Abdul Rahman, Prince Ahmad and Prince Turki. It was Fahd who permitted U.S.
forces to be stationed on Saudi soil during the Gulf War. Sultan's son, Prince Bandar bin
Sultan, serves as Saudi ambassador to the United States. This faction holds many of the
reins of power and is known to favor engagement with the United States because its
strength partly derives from alliance with Washington.
On the other side is Crown Prince
Abdullah, King Fahd's half-brother. Along with a coalition of half-brothers, Abdullah has
been able to offset the al-Sudairi Seven due to his piety and alliances with religious
leaders. He also is commander of the Saudi National Guard; Prince Sultan, of the
al-Sudairi, controls the Saudi Armed Forces.
The members of Abdullah's coalition
are less clear because he has no full brothers. They may include half-brothers Prince
Nawwaf, recently named director of general intelligence; Prince Talal, the Saudi special
envoy to UNESCO and a key liaison with London; Prince Bandar; Prince Fawwaz; Prince Badr;
Prince Abdulillah; Prince Abdul Majeed and nephews Prince Saud al Faisal, the foreign
minister; and Prince Turki al Faisal, the recently sacked intelligence director. This
coalition's politics are more religiously conservative and advocate less engagement with
the United States.
The competing factions sometimes
work together to maintain the balance of power, and thus harmony, within the ruling
family. For example, the recent dismissal of Turki al Faisal as intelligence director
illustrates the quid pro quo nature of Saudi politics. Known for his sympathetic views
toward Osama bin Laden, Turki was relieved from his post at the behest of King Fahd, the
Saudi Arabian Information Resource reported Aug. 31. King Fahd himself reportedly left the
country soon after. Likely conceding to U.S. pressure, Fahd compromised with Crown Prince
Abdullah, who quickly replaced Turki with his ally, half-brother Prince Nawwaf.
Beyond the royal family factions, a
complex network of tribal alliances weaves through the Arabian Peninsula's various clans.
The kingdom's 22.7 million people hail from a host of tribes -- including Anayzah, Bani
Khalid, Harb, Al Murrah, Mutayr, Qahtan, Shammar and Utaiba, mostly based in Central
Arabia, according to the Rand Foundation.
The factions within the royal family
and larger Saudi society greatly influence the kingdom's domestic and foreign policies.
Due to the important relationship between the House of Saud and the strictly conservative
Wahhabi form of Islam, the kingdom's relationship with non-Muslim nations is a constant
source of tension.
Following the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia
altered its policy and forbade the U.S. military to launch air strikes against other
countries, including Iraq. Even the country's defense minister, Prince Sultan -- a key
advocate of engagement with Washington -- has not been able to reverse this policy.
Military cooperation is not the only
realm in which tensions exist. Riyadh recently took steps to reform investment laws,
hoping to attract greater foreign direct investment to its oil sector. The policies
required months of debate within the government and are still opposed by various factions.
A looming period of economic austerity -- a potential result of the government's broader
reform effort -- will only add to this tension, since maintaining the fiscal balance
between factions and tribes is vital to social stability. As the pool of resources
shrinks, so will the number of groups who benefit.
In the field of intelligence,
potential for conflict exists. Riyadh is the center of gravity for Wahhabi
fundamentalists, and bin Laden sympathizers likely have access to Saudi financial
networks. Gaining that intelligence could be vital to the success of any U.S. offensive
against global terrorism. But sharing such intelligence about Saudi citizens will be
extremely difficult. As the FBI investigation into the bombing of the Khobar Towers
clearly demonstrated, Riyadh will not share information easily.
As the United States launches both a
military and economic war on terrorism, cooperation with Arab governments and especially
Saudi Arabia will be key to success. But U.S. actions will aggravate tensions inherent in
these governments, making such cooperation increasingly difficult.
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