19 May 2007 04:16


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  • Title: [SW Analysis]( Courtesy STRATFOR ) Saudi Royal Politics Are Quicksand for U.S.
  • Posted by/on:[AAJ][27 Sept 2001]

Saudi Royal Politics Are Quicksand for U.S.

2300 GMT, 010926


Saudi Arabia has refused permission for the United States to conduct retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan from Saudi territory. Riyadh later severed diplomatic relations with the Taliban. The seemingly contradictory moves stem from the debate between government factions over engagement with the United States. This internal debate will escalate and place greater restraints on Saudi-U.S. cooperation.


Saudi Arabia on Sept. 23 refused Washington permission to launch retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan from Saudi soil. A few days later, the government severed diplomatic relations with the Taliban, accusing it of harboring terrorists and contradicting Islam, the Arab News, an online Saudi daily, reported Sept. 26.

The Saudi government is divided between factions that favor working with the United States -- partly because of economic benefits and the resulting boost to their own power -- and those who oppose engagement with the West. The internal debate reflects a larger split within Saudi society over the extent and context of engagement with the United States and on the impact that engagement has on Saudi domestic and foreign policy. As the United States prepares for war against an Islamic threat, this debate will escalate, further straining Saudi-U.S. relations.

Ultimately the quarrel stands to undermine future military and economic cooperation between the two countries. It also could widen the divide within the royal family and possibly set the stage for a power shift.

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 policy.

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 coalitions.

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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