Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist and author. Robert Lacey is author of “Inside the Kingdom” and a historical consultant to the Netflix series “The Crown.”
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, likes to proclaim his reforms using a bit of “shock therapy.” He vowed to “divorce” Islamic radicals, declaring theatrically, “We will destroy them!” His war on corruption, marked by imprisoning members of the royal family in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton, was launched via social media. It became a national nail-biter for Saudi citizens, and even more so for thousands of the royal Saud family members and non-royal titans of business.
Last month’s arrest of 11 more royals added a new dimension to the unfolding drama: the possible restructuring of the Saudi royal family.
There is talk that MBS might remove royal designations for those without a direct connection to King Abdul Aziz, like Saud al-Kabir’s branch of the royal family. If so, it would represent the first major and unprecedented restructuring of the royal family. “Al-Kabir” means “the Grand” or “the Mighty,” but members of the clan are, in fact, junior relatives descending from a royal cousin, Saud al-Kabir, head of a branch of the family known as the “araif” — a Bedouin word for camels lost in a raid, then recaptured. These camels of dubious loyalty joined forces with the Sauds’ deadly rivals, the Rasheeds, in the 19th century, to bring down the second Saudi state — a Shakespearean saga of treachery, blood and betrayal, whose elements of family strife do not appear in the Saudi school curriculum.
MBS’s goal is clear: He wants to tamp down a suffocating and ever-expanding tangle of royals and subordinates and prevent strife. Since Abdul Aziz’s death in 1953, Saudi Arabia has inherited dynastic structures that allowed independent power centers to develop and multiply.
That led to an endless appetite for wealth, greed encouraged by unchecked power. The royals monopolized land and businesses all over the kingdom. On top of all that, they received guaranteed monthly stipends and generous grants.
Indeed, the wealth of the royals has quietly irked Saudi citizens. One of the most pervasive myths about the kingdom is that all Saudis are fabulously wealthy. Most of them are not. According to 2016 World Bank data, per capita income in Saudi Arabia is lower than in the United States, the United Kingdom and most Gulf neighbors. A few days before last month’s arrests, King Salman ordered all royals to pay their water, electric and telephone bills. Given the lavish lifestyle of the Saud family, many owning more than one palatial home, the bills add up to a staggering sum.
So, when members of the Saud al-Kabir family allegedly protested the imposition of these routine domestic expenses, their arrests were widely praised. Though they are not direct descendants of the country’s founder, King Abdul Aziz, they have been endowed with scores of government and private business interests. One of the gang who complained was rapidly fired from his post at the Saudi sport federation, and yet another might stand trial for treason.
For lessons in managing minor royals and family strife, the young crown prince might heed the example of Queen Elizabeth II, whom he will be visiting on his way to Washington next month. The House of Windsor ruthlessly rations its “HRH” titles to core relatives around the sovereign — the al-Kabirs and many others would have been off the royal radar (and the payroll) generations ago according to the rules of the world’s most successful reigning family.
The Windsors also appreciate the virtues of age and experience. Figures such as the late Queen Mother, and now Queen Elizabeth II herself, rival the glamorous young William, Catherine, Harry and Meghan in the popularity stakes. So, while MBS is moving in the right direction if he is preparing to “downsize” the House of Saud, cutting out the “Game of Thrones”-like tangle of rivalrous royalties, he should not forget the value of such wise older heads as the experienced and diplomatic Prince Turki al-Faisal. Might his mature skills resolve the tragic standoff in Yemen.
The greatest lesson the House of Saud might learn from the House of Windsor is to listen to the people — “What touches all should be approved by all.” Elizabeth II has enhanced her stature on several occasions by bowing her head to public criticism, notably after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The Queen was judged the grander for showing humility — Elizabeth “al-Kabira” — and she is proud to preside over a society where thought and speech are free.
The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia. The arrest of those 11 princes may seem like good news — for the first time in modern history, royals are being treated like ordinary citizens. But what about the several dozen intellectuals, religious scholars and journalists who, with far less international attention, have been awaiting trial in Saudi Arabia since last September, some of them in solitary confinement while the state tries in vain to find grounds to charge them? Unlike the arrested royals, they never protested in front of the governor’s palace, did not raise their voices demanding to meet with the king and did not resist when the police tried to disperse them — they had never met or demonstrated. Their only form of protest was their ideas.
MBS’s downsizing and relative humbling of the House of Saud is welcome news. But maybe he should learn from the British royal house that has earned true stature, respect and success by trying a little humility himself. If MBS can listen to his critics and acknowledge that they, too, love their country, he can actually enhance his power.