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The trouble with the Middle East’s royal families

Posted By on April 8, 2021 @ 13:00

The rift between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his half-brother, Prince Hamzah, once again reminds us of the patrimonial and, in some cases, polygamic-based sibling and inter-dynastic power rivalry that has traditionally marked political life in many parts of the Muslim world. It has historically yielded grave consequences, contributing to the fragility and instability of the authoritarian rule that continues to feature in many Muslim countries. This has been nowhere more evident than in the Middle East.

A quick survey of Islamic history since the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 reveals that, despite Islam acting as a unifying religion, the evolution of rule in the Muslim domain has frequently been marked by assassinations and bloodshed. This has in many cases stemmed from sibling and dynastic rivalries. It featured in the Umayyad (661–744) and Abbasid (750–1258) dynasties, as it also did during the Ottoman imperial reign (1299–1918). And it continued to define the dynastic rule in several Middle Eastern countries, most of which gained independence during the accelerated European decolonisation between the two world wars and afterwards. In recent times, the experiences of Saudi Arabia and Jordan have been most illustrative.

In Saudi Arabia, following the death of its founder as a modern state, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who reigned from 1932 to 1953 and produced many male children from at least four concurrent wives, there was a consensus that the seven sons from his Sudairi wife would succeed him in the order of age. However, the succession line didn’t always work as intended.

Although Abdulaziz’s oldest surviving son, Saud Al Saud, succeeded him, he faced continued rivalry from his brother Faisal, who held his own distinct vision for Saudi Arabia. Deposing Saud in 1964, Faisal proved to be a better administrator and more forward-looking.

Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by his American-educated and westernised nephew, Faisal bin Musaid Al Saud. Different sources have attributed his actions to a variety of motives, one of which is that he was not satisfied with the contradictory ways that the Saudi royal family ruled.  He was followed by his Sudairi brothers until the chain was broken by Abdullah bin Saud from another mother, ruling from 2005 to 2015. Abdullah was publicly dubbed as a reformist and, despite being an out-of-the-line successor, was tolerated by his Sudairi siblings partly because he appointed Nayef bin Sultan, one of the sons of a deceased Sudairi, as crown prince, thus projecting a return of rule to the Sudairi line.

However, given that two Sudairis were still alive, Prince Salman Al Saud (the eldest) took power upon Abdullah’s death. Salman was quick to promote his younger son, Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS). In an unprecedently forceful manner, MBS wrested the position of crown prince from Nayef, putting him under house arrest, along with jailing many more potential princely rivals and their main supporters.

In view of King Salman’s old age and frailty, MBS has managed to elevate himself as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. His autocratic but socially modernising rule has proved to be very controversial in its domestic and foreign policy dispositions, which has confronted the new Joe Biden administration in the US with a serious dilemma about how to deal with the Saudi kingdom as a key ally in an economically and strategically vital region of the world.

A similar development has come to beset the Jordanian dynastic rule. The latest tension between King Abdullah and Prince Hamzah traces back to 1999 when their dying father, King Hussein bin Talal, who had succeeded his father in 1952 under more or less British tutelage, made a dash to Jordan from the US to determine the future of his dynastic rule. He was married three times, with the oldest son, Abdullah, from the British born Muna al-Hussein, and the youngest son, Hamzah, from the American born Noor al-Hussein. As the final and highly glamorous wife, Queen Noor was mostly favoured by the king, as was her son Hamzah. During the king’s months of treatment for terminal cancer in the US, Queen Noor was his constant companion, encouraging him to ensure the position of Hamzah as his successor.

In a quick visit to Amman before returning to the US to die, the king unceremoniously fired his brother Hassan bin Talal as crown prince. Meanwhile, two considerations led him to designate his oldest son, Abdullah, as his successor and Hamzah as crown prince: Hamzah’s young age and the constitutional provision that the king should be succeeded by his oldest son. Yet, he expected Abdullah to relinquish the crown to Hamzah at an appropriate time. But once Abdullah consolidated power, he wanted his son to be his successor. He stripped Hamzah of his position in favour of his own young son, Hussein bin Abdullah (born in 1994), causing a simmering but serious discontent within the royal family. Queen Noor was upset and disappointed with the development, as was Hamzah.

The roots of the current Abdullah–Hamzah tussle lie in this change in succession. As Hamzah matured, he grew critical of the governments, administrative anomalies and corruption under his brother’s rule. He has reflected the voice of many Jordanians whose economic and social situation has been compounded by Covid-19 and a decline in foreign aid, which Jordan is heavily dependent on, especially from the US. The country is also burdened by the influx of refugees from war-torn Iraq and Syria, and indeed from a difficult demographic composition—a majority of its citizens are of Palestinian origin—and Jordan’s location in a highly unstable and problematic neighbourhood, in which the Israeli–Palestinian conflict plays its part.

As the situation stands, neither Saudi Arabia nor Jordan is in serious danger of unravelling. The US and other main regional players do not find it in their interests to see these countries destabilised. While there’s the tradition of mediation, which has seen Hamzah pledge allegiance [1] to Abdullah, the sibling-based dynastic power rivalries may continue to play a prominent role in the governance of many Middle Eastern monarchies for the foreseeable future. To address the problem, there’s a need for a transformation of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and indeed the rest of the hereditary-ruled Middle Eastern states into constitutional monarchies where the powers of the monarchs are balanced by publicly mandated governments.

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[1] pledge allegiance: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-jordan-security/estranged-prince-hamza-defies-jordans-military-in-voice-recording-idUSKBN2BS0VK?il=0

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