A Strange, Strange System

This is no news to Saudi watchers or people who keep up on the region. But I wanted to note one fact about the passing today of Saudi King Abdullah. Abdullah was 90 years old, a pretty old guy, though until quite recently fairly vital for his age. But since 1953, every Saudi monarch has been the son of the founder of the Saudi state, ibn Saud, a man who was born in 1876. To put that more crisply, every Saudi head of state who has governed this pivotal, brittle and profoundly influential petro-state during the years of its ascendency since 1953 has been the son of a man born only a decade after the US Civil War. Had transportation been more advanced and he was born a decade earlier, he could have hung out with Abraham Lincoln.

This fact is more than a novelty. As Saudi Arabia became a bigger and bigger force in world affairs this succession principle cast a mortal pall over the regime. Since the system went from one son of ibn Saud to the next – rather than the more traditional lineal system – just how many sons could there be and how long could they live? Well, as it turned out, quite a few and for quite a long time. ibn Saud sired 45 sons of which 36 lived to adulthood and had their own children. He is said to have had 22 wives.

But now they are coming to the end of the line.

Salman is a spry 79 but he is reputed to be in poor health. His successor will be Crown Prince Muqrin. But he’s it – the last surviving son of ibn Saud at a youngish 69. After Muqrin dies, assuming he outlives Salman, the family will move on to the grandsons of ibn Saud, with a council of princes of some sort who will choose who succeeds who.

We will see then just how much the legitimacy of ibn Saud and the longevity of his sons was the key to holding the tightly wound edifice together.

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