Saudi Arabia, with its roots in rebellion against the Ottomans, was a child of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, a secret understanding between Britain and France that defined their respective zones of influence.
Britain signed the “Treaty of Darin” with Ibn Saud that incorporated the lands of the Saud family as a British protectorate in December 1915. The western coastal region, Hejaz, was taken next by Ibn Saud along with Makkah and Madinah in 1925. He then utilised his 22 marriages to shape and control his vast kingdom. But it was his close alliance with the British that helped him ward off threats towards the emerging state. However, Ibn Saud was given flexibility by the British to sign economic contracts with the US, as Britain was overstretched and was unable to meet the economic needs of the state.
Subsequently, Ibn Saud signed a concession agreement with Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) in 1935, which included handing over substantial authority over Saudi oil fields. Standard Oil later established a subsidiary in Saudi Arabia called the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), now fully owned by the Saudi government.
There are three key pillars that the House of Saud rests upon, allowing it to persist. The first of these is the dominance of the royal family in Saudi politics. The Saudi royal family is effectively an oligarchy that has crafted an absolute monarchy. As a result, the family continues to dominate the political architecture of the country with no other centres of power existing. The throne of Saudi Arabia changes hands through a power transfer that remains firmly with the Saud family. Ibn Saud is believed to have had at least 70 children, with at least 16 sons still alive. They and their offspring form a core of about 200 princes who wield most of the power. Estimates of the total number of princes range anywhere, from 7,000 upwards. The family’s vast numbers allow it to control most of the kingdom’s important posts and to have an involvement and presence at all levels of government. The key ministries are reserved for the royal family, as are the thirteen regional governorships.
The Saudis know that their own, governing elites are deteriorating. Saudi Arabia is a state that, as its name attests, is based on loyalty not to a terrain or an idea but to a family. Ibn Saud, who established the country along with his son Faisal ibn Abdul-Aziz (the third monarch), dominated the first generation of Saudi rulers. The second generation has been dominated by the “Sudairi Seven” — the seven sons of Ibn Saud’s favourite wife, Hussa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi — who oversaw political life, often as kings, giving coherence to the family and thus to the ruling power structure. But that group is disappearing. The current king, Salman, the sixth oldest Sudairi, is nearly 80.
The second pillar has been the numerous and complex patronage networks established to consolidate control of the oil-rich nation. The descendants of Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, known as the Family of the Sheikh, the 18th century founder of the Wahhabi school of thought is only second in prestige to the royal family with who they formed a mutual support pact and power-sharing arrangement nearly 300 years ago. This pact maintains Wahhabi support for Saudi rule and thus uses its authority to legitimise the royal family’s rule. The most important religious posts are closely linked to the Al-Saud family by a high degree of intermarriage. The religious scholars have promoted the royal family as defenders of Islam through their international efforts in constructing mosques. In situations in which the public deemed certain policies of the royal family questionable, the scholars would invoke fatwas to deflect any dissent. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa opposing petitions and demonstrations in the middle of the Arab Spring; his fatwa included a “severe threat against internal dissent”. Likewise, these scholars have legitimised the Saudi political system, its financial backing of the Sisi regime in Egypt and support of the US in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The third and final pillar is the country’s mineral wealth, which is concentrated in the hands of the royal family and the hands of a few other well-positioned families. The Royals receive stipends of varying amounts, depending on their position in the bloodline of King Abdul-Aziz. Possessing the world’s largest oil field has allowed the royal family the means to establish and maintain patronage and client networks that helped build tribal alliances not only in Saudi but across the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia has constructed it’s foreign relations to protect and enrich the monarchy and in turn the family of Saud. Put within the context of its immense mineral wealth and military riches, Saudi Arabia’s role in the Muslim world is largely limited to a mere symbolic leadership due to having the two holy Islamic sites, Makkah and Madinah, within its borders. Saudi Arabia has played a small role in a handful of regional issues such as involvement in the Palestine conflict and recently exerting itself in Yemen. The inability of Saudi Arabia to play a dominant role in the region is because, one, it does not have a regional vision, and second, because it is in a straightjacket imposed by global powers using Saudi Arabia for their own strategic interests. Saudi Arabia was a nation created by the British for the Saud family and has become the face of nepotism and corruption in the Muslim world. It is exposed as another artificial construct that has served global powers well for decades and will continue to do so, regardless of which king comes to power.