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The return of Saudi Arabia's Red Prince
By John Rossant

The story of Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, who in the early 1970s tried to bring reform to the Saudi establishment, is an extraordinary one. Talal is now back on track, and with him is his son al-Walid.

The al-Saud rulers are a normally taciturn group, rarely expressing themselves outside official communiques. Not for nothing is the austere Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sometimes referred to among Arab intellectuals as Mamlakat al-samt, the "Kingdom of Silence".

But in the shock and nervousness that has gripped the al-Saud leadership following September 11, senior al-Saud princes - on the defensive as never before - have been surprisingly loquacious. These include not only Prince Nayef, the often-dour Minister of Interior, but also Prince Turki al-Feisal, the former head of the General Intelligence Directorate, who spent hours being interviewed by the London-based Arabic-language TV network MBC.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud was dispatched to New York and Washington for briefings with the editors of top US newspapers. And among those princely voices, one in particular stood out from the rest: Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, the 71-year-old half-brother of King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah. Although he was long an al-Saud pariah - and is still without an official position in the state hierarchy - Talal has been airing his strident views on the post-September 11 world. The United States, he says, desperately needs to listen to the Arab world.

Prince Talal's utterances are a reminder of a half-forgotten episode which once shook the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to its foundations: the 1958-64 succession struggle within the al-Saud family between King Saud and his half-brother and Crown Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz. The bitter battle, which came close to a civil war, almost toppled the al-Saud regime. The culmination of the drawn-out drama was the November 1964 forced deposal of King Saud, considered to be "one of the most important decisions the family has made this century". In that struggle between Saud and Faisal, Talal played a central role.

Thirty-six years later, the question of succession in Saudi Arabia is once again a vital, life-and-death issue for the Kingdom. King Fahd is 80 years old - and incapacitated after a 1995 stroke. His half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah is 78 years old. The fact that no accepted method has been adopted to transfer power to the third generation of al-Saud princes has very dangerous implications. One is the prospect of a drawn-out Saudi "Brezhnev" era of geriatric leadership, as the throne continues to pass among aged sons of the founder of the Saudi Kingdom Abdulaziz, as it has done since his death in 1953.

In theory, passing the throne among brothers and half-brothers could last another 20 years or so. More dangerously, a power struggle could develop among the 350 or so direct descendants of Abdulaziz, the subgroup within the 7,000-plus royal family from which a king must be chosen, according to the Saudi Basic Law of Government promulgated in early 1992 (in the wake of the Gulf conflict and ensuing pressures on the Saudi regime to liberalize politically). (See annex below.)

And now, as in the family schism three-and-half decades ago, Prince Talal is playing a key role. Since 1999, he has emerged from isolation as a member of the al-Saud family council, a core group of top princes. He has become a senior adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, the effective head of government. And he has been among the only princes publicly voicing an opinion on the delicate succession question. Either, said Talal in 1999, the al-Saud will "find a smooth way to pass the monarchy to the next generation, or [they will] face a power struggle after the era of the old royals passes".

More than any other senior royal, Talal knows that the al-Sauds are peculiarly prey to succession struggles. The Saudi state which was proclaimed by Abdulaziz in 1932, after all, is in fact the third al-Saud Kingdom. The first Saudi "state" was founded in 1744 by the first great al-Saud leader Muhammad bin Saud (who made the historic alliance with the religious reformer Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, the founder of "Wahhabism"). It lasted until vanquished by Egyptian forces in 1818. The second state rose again in 1822 and survived as the dominant power in central Arabia until trampled by the rival al-Rashid clan. Of 14 successions within the al-Saud dynasty between 1744 and 1891, only three occurred peacefully. Almost all others involved murder, civil war and inviting foreign allies in to vanquish rival family members.

It is worth returning for a moment to that obscure struggle at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s - and to Talal's role in it - to understand more deeply some of the intra-family dynamics of the al-Saud clan. As the decade of the 1950s began, the long and spectacular reign of Abdulaziz was coming to an end. The aged king, born in 1880 and now blind and infirm, barely moved any more from an upstairs bedroom in his Murabba Palace in the center of Riyadh. Around the old palace it was clear that Saudi Arabia was at the cusp of great and momentous change, and not only because the death of the king was close.

Over in the east, about 400 kilometers across the Dahna Sands, the cream of American geologists and engineers were erecting the most sophisticated machinery, pumping stations, and gas-oil separators ever seen in the world. They would make Saudi Arabia the undisputed master of the world oil trade within a few years.

Oil had been discovered in 1938 by geologists from Standard Oil of California. They were working on a 50-year concession which had been granted by Abdulaziz in exchange for the immediate payment of 30,000 gold sovereigns. It was one of history's greatest bargains. When the extent of Saudi Arabia's breathtakingly large reserves started to become evident, Exxon, Texaco and Mobil joined in to form the mighty Aramco consortium. On the Persian Gulf coast, Aramco's oil town of Dhahran was rising from the barren sands. It was an almost perfect simulacrum of a model American city - right in the middle of one of the harshest and most backward theocratic states on the planet. With its tidy streets, baseball diamonds and US-style high schools, Dhahran seemed to be on another planet.

Yet in Abdulaziz's dusty capital Riyadh, the Middle Ages still reigned in all their splendor. Only a few old Fords plied the streets, none of which was yet paved. Two telegraph lines were the only link with the outside world. The city - more a mud-built desert trading post built around mud fortifications - still had as its center the old Musmak fortress, which Abdulaziz and a handful of his warriors had overcome in 1901, the first step in reestablishing al-Saud primacy in the Arabian peninsula.

An immense slave corps, mostly of African origin, now served the royal family and its palaces. But if Abdulaziz had begun his career as a tribal chieftain, he was now an oriental potentate holding sway over the vastness of Arabia and a kingdom needed a new palace for its king. In 1935 - just two years after the state of Saudi Arabia was proclaimed - work was begun on the last great mud-built palace in the Najd murabba (square).

How long Abdulaziz would survive, and whether Saudi Arabia would survive him as a unified land, were important questions starting to be asked nervously in Washington, London and other world capitals. Foreign legations in the Red Sea port of Jeddah (no embassy was permitted in the Wahhabi capital Riyadh until 1982) desperately tried to piece together what was happening in the royal bedchamber at Murabba Palace.

On paper, at least, the succession was fairly clear. Saud, born in 1902 and the king's eldest surviving son, had formally been made Crown Prince by his father in 1933. A bear of a man, whose mother Wadhba was from the small Najdi tribe of Bani Khalid, he was constantly at the king's side. As his father declined in power, he began taking on more and more responsibilities. Saud also started relying on several of his 35 full and half-brothers, including Talal.

Abdulaziz had been prodigiously fertile, taking brides in order to co-opt one or another tribe or to mend relations with cadet branches of the al-Saud. Abdulaziz, as a unitarian Wahhabi, had been a sternly devout Muslim and as such never had more than four legal wives at a time. But these were regularly divorced and rotated as his whims and passions warranted. And the king had also made ample use of slave-girls and concubines. In this, he had held fast to an Islamic tradition that allowed rulers to take women as chattel in addition to the four wives allotted under Sharia law.

In 1921, Abdulaziz had been busy wiping out the last traces of resistance among his al-Rashid rivals in the Great Nafud desert to the north of Riyadh. In triumph he and his warriors visited the emir, or prince, of Unayza, a large desert trading post halfway to the Iraqi border. In the emir's palace, according to family members, Abdulaziz was presented with a beautiful 12-year-old girl, Munayer.

Munayer's father, it is thought, was most likely an Armenian Christian from eastern Anatolia. His wife certainly was. Six years earlier, in 1915, the family had been forced to flee in terror before the vast anti-Armenian massacres of that year. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who fled west to Athens or Beirut, Munayer, her father, mother, and two other siblings traveled southward, along old caravan routes, deep into the interior of Wahhabi Arabia. It was a strange choice for a Christian family. They may have been too terrified to reason carefully. Or perhaps they intended to head for Lebanon or even Persia - safe havens then for fleeing Armenians - and simply got lost.

Three years after being given to Abdulaziz, Munayer gave birth to a baby boy, Talal. Following Arab tradition, Munayer henceforth would be known as Umm Talal, "mother of Talal". However, joy quickly turned to tragedy: in 1927, the three-year-old Talal died. But in 1930, Munayer - now converted to Islam - presented the king with another male child. The new son was named Talal in honor of his late brother, in keeping with Bedouin tradition (in the early 1940s, no one knows exactly when, Abdulaziz divorced his fourth wife and formally wed Munayer - thus legitimizing her offspring). Already, the king sired dozens of children from a succession of wives drawn from the main Arabian tribes, and the dusty mud palaces of central Riyadh were starting to overflow with al-Saud princes and princesses.

Munayer would remain illiterate all her life, according to her family. But Talal was to be different. He was educated in the Riyadh palace, becoming one of the first al-Saud princes to study foreign languages. It was clear that as son of Abdulaziz's favorite wife, he would occupy a special position in the family hierarchy. Talal, in fact, quickly became the favorite of the old king. When Talal was barely in his late teens, Abdulaziz put the entire finances of Murabba Palace in his hands. It was a position of crucial importance since the palace was the undisputed center of the Saudi government when Abdulaziz was in residence.

Talal was also one of the first of the al-Saud princes to travel widely. It was becoming clear that Talal could and would have a bright future as one of the young royal family's stars, even if there were 14 elder half-brothers ahead of him in the hierarchical pecking order. His mother, after all, was the king's favorite wife. And the old king seemed to want to give the youth greater and greater responsibilities.

In November, 1953, during a visit to Taif to escape the heat, the aged monarch began to sink. He died in the afternoon. His last words, according to St John Philby, the British explorer (and father of arch-spy Kim Philby), who had become a confidant of the ruler, were darkly prophetic: "A man's possessions and his children are his worst enemies."

Basic Law of Government, Royal Decree Number A/90
Dated Shaaban 1412H/1 March 1992
Chapter Two: The Law of Government

Article 5
(a) Monarchy is the system of rule in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
(b) Rulers of the country shall be from among the sons of the founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Faisal al-Saud, and their descendants. The most upright among them shall receive allegiance according to the Holy Koran and the Sunnah of the Prohet (peace be upon Him).
(c) The king shall choose the heir apparent and relieve him by a royal decree.
(d) The heir apparent shall devote himself exclusively to his duties as heir apparent and shall perform any other duties delegated to him by the king.
(e) Upon the death of the king, the heir apparent shall assume all royal powers until a pledge of allegiance (bay'ah) is given.

    Next: Talal: The man to watch

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