Podcast: An Anatomy of How the Saudi Royal Family Works, with Theodore Karasik

Published January 15th, 2020 - 11:06 GMT
Mohammed bin Salman (AFP/FILE)
Mohammed bin Salman (AFP/FILE)

Saudi Arabia is one of the Middle East’s most powerful countries, but its state, and the royal family that runs it, are a virtual black box.

How does the Saudi royal family wield power? What are the internal relations within the family like and how does the family relate to the country’s local tribes? Saudi Arabia has a controversial ruler named Mohammed bin Salman, but how did he get that powerful position, and how has he secured his hold of it?

These questions are both fundamental to understanding how Saudi Arabia works, but are rarely ever answered in major media outlets. Coverage of Saudi Arabia revolves around royal politics but almost never explores its nuanced inner-workings to inform readers of why the events unfolding are happening in the first place. As a result, a lot of us know about bin Salman’s high-profile Khashoggi killing and the mass arrests in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton, but are left wondering what purposes they served.

Saudi Arabia has a controversial ruler named Mohammed bin Salman, but how did he get that powerful position, and how has he secured his hold of it?

In addition, many stories about Saudi Arabia misinform readers by misinterpreting behind-the-scenes movements. For example, in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, many major outlets circulated rumors that Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz was being flown to Riyadh in a potential coup against bin Salman. This was not only untrue, but grossly underestimated the extent to which bin Salman had totalized control of the state.

Answers to the complex questions of how Saudi works can be found in obsequiously long academic texts, but this knowledge has not yet been used by many analysts and journalists covering the region who still by and large view Saudi with an orientalist lens. This problem is confounded by the fact that most regional news outlets covering Saudi are funded either by Saudi itself or by rivals in the region.

An information gap has formed between those actually affecting political change within Saudi and those from the outside looking in. 

“The biggest hindrance [to understanding Saudi] is the practice of orientalist that continues to this day in analysis of the Kingdom."

To understand this further, Al Bawaba spoke with Theodore Karasik, who breaks down how the Saudi royal family works internally and how it secures power throughout the country. 

In conversation with Al Bawaba, he details  precisely how Mohammed bin Salman has leveraged local patronage networks to centralize power around him, pushing aside rival factions within the family in the process, and what the strategic purpose of his coercive campaigns against elite rivals and human rights activists is.

Image result for theodore karasik

Theodore Karasik (Gulf State Analytics)


Theodore Karasik is a Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and former director of research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. He has closely followed the way the Saudi regime works for decades, and brings a close, critical eye to this discussion. 

“The biggest hindrance [to understanding Saudi] is the practice of orientalist that continues to this day in analysis of the Kingdom,” Karasik argues.

“It is critical to read thoroughly the literature about how the country ticks,” he says, adding that analysts should rely more on anthropological and cultural texts rather than those strictly based within a security-minded International Relations discipline, which distort or neglect the internal workings of the country.

“There are established patterns that are important to watch in terms of how members of the Saud family congregate around each other.” Karasik notes that Mohammed bin Salman’s [MbS] coronation as Crown Prince radically shook up the balance of power within the Saud family. 

“What we’ve had under bin Salman as opposed to the age of King Abdullah is this consolidation of particular families around the Salman [faction]”

Throughout nearly every stratum of Saudi society, MbS has instituted a carrot and stick strategy for securing power within the country’s elite: simultaneously enticing them with his national reformist vision while threatening to arrest and alienate those who may reject his politics. Loyalists are promoted to high levels of government while dissidents and potential rivals are rounded up, arrested and tortured.

Only through this combination of nuanced cultural knowledge and geopolitical expertise can analysts understand how the royal family works, and what MbS has done to influence it.

“What we’ve had under bin Salman as opposed to the age of King Abdullah is this consolidation of particular families around the Salman [faction],” adding that MbS sidelined his cousins in the al-Nayef faction while relying on “cadet branches of the Saudi royal family,” who are powerful but not in line for the throne, “in order to ensure his power.” 

At every level, MbS is centralizing power around him and his vision for the country.

In the process, MbS pushed aside Mohammed bin Nayef to replace him as Crown Prince, jumpstarting a series of internal purges that centralized the bin Salman faction of the family as the undisputed leader of the Saud family. According to Karasik, MbS’ efforts were critically aided by the U.A.E., who saw the need for reform, but caught the U.S. off guard. 

Apart from coercing various factions to acquiesce to his rule, MbS has also secured patronage from local tribes. “The patronage relationship that MbS has conducted in Saudi is really given to the governors who are all in Bay’ah, or allegiance, to MbS,” he says.

“Within each province, the governor is responsible for the tribal units that are located there.” For these governors, MbS is using his Saudi Vision 2030 as an incentive, trading promises of economic growth to the tribes for their loyalty.

MbS is using his Saudi Vision 2030 as an incentive, trading promises of economic growth to the tribes for their loyalty.

Additionally, MbS is working to secure the patronage of  powerful non-royal merchant families,  who Karasik posits are critical to achieving the reforms laid out in Saudi Vision 2030, which revolve around inviting foreign investment into the country while opening it up for tourism.

At every level, MbS is centralizing power around him and his vision for the country.

To listen to the full conversation, click here


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