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Saudi Arabia and Britain: Very Different Games of Thrones

May 16, 2015

Prince Charles Saudi

It’s tough being an intellectually curious member of the British royal family. No royal knows this better than poor Prince Charles. The heir to the British throne is perhaps squirming a little because of the enforced publication of his letters to various government ministers a decade ago. The famous black spider memos were supposed to be confidential, but legal action by the Guardian newspaper forced their publication.

Not that he really has much to squirm about. There have been critics who accuse him of wasting ministerial time by lobbying them over his various hobby-horses. Some have accused him of citing bad science in his arguments. If that is the case, there are many so-called experts who are guilty of the same offence. Climate change and health sciences come to mind particularly.

The prince’s topics reflect deeply-felt concerns on a number of topics. Having a future king who is concerned about issues rather contenting himself with being a mute constitutional ornament is absolutely fine by me. Prince Charles, after all, would never suggest that his mother’s subjects should eat cake.

The hoo-ha about the black spider memos calls to mind the role of the monarch, which by custom is “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.” How the heir to the British throne must occasionally wish that Walter Bagehot’s definition finished with “and to kick ass”.

Other monarchies have that prerogative, not least in Saudi Arabia, where I’m currently on a visit. Prince Charles is also a frequent visitor to the Kingdom. He had a close relationship with the late King Abdullah, who liked to take him out to the desert for traditional Arabian pursuits. I wonder if he has ever cast an envious eye on the wide-ranging powers of his fellow royals, not least the current Crown Prince. Unfortunately for Charles, the last monarch in these isles who exercised anything like the power of the Al-Saud was Charles I, and he lost his head for his injudicious use of that power.

Yet while the modern Charles must sometimes feel that he is waiting an eternity to step on to centre stage as king, spare a thought for the senior members of the Saudi royal family, some of whom must have felt over the last forty years that they were playing an interminable waiting game with no guarantee of the outcome.

What kicked off this train of thought was a long feature in the Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s English-language daily that appeared a few days ago. It was a tribute to the outgoing foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. In a cascade of extravagant praise, the writers chronicled Prince Saud’s forty-year career as foreign minister in glowing terms that you would rarely encounter in an English newspaper. We’re far too cynical. Here’s how the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates began his eulogy:

“Those who do not know him will say he is an adept foreign minister and a faithful politician. Those who do know him will say, in addition to the above, that he is a master, and a cultured and well-read man of the highest caliber, the likes of which we see only every now and again in the annals of Islamic and Arab history. One can only marvel at the man’s astuteness and eloquence, at his soft-spoken words and decisive actions.”

A little over the top perhaps, but the truth of the matter is that Prince Saud did indeed have a distinguished career. He is highly respected within and without the Kingdom. He is an impressive man. His austere features remind one of his father, Saudi Arabia’s third monarch, Faisal bin Abdulaziz. Saud’s brothers, Khaled, Turki and Khaled are also impressive men, with long careers in government. Prince Khaled is currently Governor of Mecca. All the brothers are in their late sixties or seventies.

So here’s where the British royals differ from the Saudis. Whereas from the moment he was born Charles’s place in the line of succession has been was assured, unless of course he makes some gigantic constitutional faux pas. For prospective rulers of Saudi Arabia, accession to the throne is by no means assured. Only two men stand formally in line to succeed the current king. After them the succession is anybody’s guess – or strictly speaking a matter for the senior royals to decide. And perhaps being in the right place at the right time.

King Salman, who assumed the crown three months ago on the death of his half-brother King Abdullah, has finally passed the baton to the next generation of the extended Al-Saud family. Until last month the designated line of succession has featured only the sons of the founder, King Abdulaziz, known internationally as Ibn Saud. But now that the few remaining sons have been deemed too old, not suitable or unwilling to shoulder the responsibility, Salman has appointed two of Abdulaziz’s most talented grandsons, Mohammed bin Naif and Mohammed bin Salman as second and third in line to the throne. The crown prince is the King’s nephew. The deputy crown prince is his son.

For one reason or another the sons of previous monarchs did not make the short list. In the case of Faisal’s sons, age was an inhibiting factor. Prince Saud, for example, is older than at least one of his uncles, Muqrin, who last month stood down as crown prince in favour of Mohammed bin Naif.

It was never an option for King Faisal to put his sons into the line of succession. Faisal’s brothers, particularly Fahd, Abdullah, Sultan, Naif and Salman, were all ambitious and capable men who would have been outraged if their expectations had been thwarted. In the end Sultan and Naif died before they could succeed to the throne. But the family as a whole would have prevented Faisal from elevating his sons. It was only the dwindling number of eligible sons of Abdulaziz that led Salman to the next generation.

Would Saud Al-Faisal and his dignified, well-respected brothers have been regarded as candidates for the succession if their equally respected father had been the fifteenth son of the founder instead of the third? Quite possibly. An accident of primogeniture took them out of contention.

A few years ago I was asked to run a programme for a class of Saudi schoolchildren. The aim was to prepare them for studying abroad. To of find out more about them, I asked them a series of questions. One was “name the person, living or dead, whom you most admire”. Their answers were interesting. Those who did not name the Prophet Mohammed – a natural choice for devout Muslims – almost all chose King Faisal. Apart from one lad who came up with Lionel Messi.

Those who named Faisal gave many reasons for their decision. He was devout, he was principled. He pioneered girl’s education. He made his country respected throughout the world. I’m sure that their choice of Faisal was no reflection on King Abdullah, who was on the throne at the time and was also held in great esteem. But the children I worked with were born many years after Faisal was assassinated by a member of his family. So it’s highly likely that their views reflected those of their families.

And no wonder. After all, Saudi Arabia has Faisal to thank for the fabulous wealth that has enabled his successors to build the infrastructure that stands today. It was Faisal who engineered the oil embargo against the west that increased the price of oil many times, and brought the economy of the US to its knees. His reason for doing so was to protest against America’s support for a country that he regarded as illegitimate – Israel. The era of cheap oil was over, with profound implications worldwide. Once the embargo was lifted, the oil price stayed as a much higher level than before, thus enriching Saudi Arabia beyond the wildest dreams of its people.

The fact that Saudi Arabia has remained coherent and prosperous over the seventy years since the passing of the founder is a tribute to the ability of the sons and grandsons of Abdulaziz who have held executive power since then. These days absolute monarchy is something of an anachronism more or less everywhere except in the Gulf region. Absolute dictatorship, on the other hand, or rather various degrees up to absolute, is alive and flourishing. Dictatorships often ends badly. So do monarchies sometimes. And yet Al-Saud are still very much with us.

Part of the reason is that they can no longer be considered a family – more a tribe. There are many thousands of them. So the king has a large pool of talent to choose from. And despite the possible frustration and thwarted ambitions of those who might feel they deserve to be closer to the big prize, successive kings have been able to manage those tensions without letting them erupt to the surface.

Of all the Kingdom’s rulers since Abdulaziz, Faisal – I’m assured by those schoolboys and by a number of my Saudi friends – holds a special place in the hearts of ordinary Saudis. For all his ground-breaking achievements as king, he is particularly respected – to use modern parlance – for walking the walk. Whereas his predecessor, King Saud, was known for his self-indulgent spending, Faisal was a devout and frugal man. All families have their wayward sons and daughters, but Faisal’s offspring reflect his own example and his disciplined approach to parenthood. Not only are they known to be hard-working, but they are untainted by personal scandal.

The younger generation will before too long be in control of Saudi Arabia’s future. If filial piety doesn’t prevent them from looking for role models in addition to their own fathers, Mohammed bin Naif and Mohammed bin Salman will surely consider the careers of King Faisal and his sons. After all, were it not for that accident of primogeniture, at least two of Faisal’s offspring might have been standing in their shoes.

And others who may be champing at the bit for more responsibility could perhaps take some inspiration from the dignity and good grace of Prince Charles as he patiently awaits his place in history.

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