As one of world's last absolute monarchs, the Saudi Arabian king exercised very broad powers. He was both head of state and head of government. Ultimate authority in virtually every aspect of government rested with the king. All legislation was enacted either by royal decree or by ministerial decree, which had to be sanctioned by the king. In his capacity as prime minister, the king appointed all cabinet ministers, other senior government officials, and the governors of the provinces. In his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces, the king appointed all military officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel. He also appointed all Saudi Arabia's ambassadors and other foreign envoys. All foreign diplomats in the country were accredited to the king. In addition, the king acted as the final court of appeal and had the power of pardon.
The legitimacy of the king's rule was based on the twin pillars of religion and the dynastic history of the Al Saud. The family's most important early ancestor, Muhammad ibn Saud (1710- 65), had been a relatively minor local ruler in Najd before establishing a political and family alliance with the puritanical Muslim preacher and reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703-87) in 1744. Muhammad ibn Saud and his descendants--the Al Saud-- ardently supported the preacher and his descendants--the Al ash Shaykh--and were determined to introduce a purified Islam, which opponents called Wahhabism, throughout Arabia. Religious fervor facilitated the conquest of Najd and at the height of their power in the early nineteenth century, the Al Saud had extended their control over most of the Arabian Peninsula. Subsequent conflict with the Ottoman Empire and dynastic rivalries both diminished and enhanced the political fortunes of the Al Saud throughout the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the Saudi alliance with the Al ash Shaykh endured.
The founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia, Abd al Aziz ibn Abd ar Rahman Al Saud (1876-1953), was a grandson of the last effective nineteenth-century Saudi ruler, Faisal ibn Turki (1810- 66). Abd al Aziz restored the family from virtual political extinction by reintroducing the crusading zeal of Wahhabi Islam. By 1924, when the Ikhwan, a select force of beduin religious fighters created by Abd al Aziz, conquered the Hijaz, almost all the territory of the present-day Saudi state was under Abd al Aziz's authority. In 1932 he proclaimed this territory the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and himself its king.
Abd al Aziz ruled until his death in 1953. Although he had named his eldest son, Saud ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud (1902-69), crown prince, he had not instituted an mechanism for orderly succession. Because Abd al Aziz was survived by more than thirty sons, the lack of a process for passing on the mantle of kingship constituted a source of potential political instability for the country. Problems emerged soon after King Saud began his reign. Like his father, Saud had more than thirty sons, and he was ambitious to place them in positions of power and influence. The new king's numerous brothers, who believed their nephews were too young and inexperienced to head ministries and major government departments, deeply resented their exclusion from power. The political and personal tensions among the Al Saud, combined with the extravagance and poor judgment of Saud, climaxed in a 1964 family coup. A number of brothers joined together to depose Saud and install as king the next eldest brother, Faisal ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud (1904-75). The transfer of power was endorsed by Saudi Arabia's ulama, or religious authorities.
King Faisal strengthened the powers of the monarchy during his eleven-year reign. Although he had acted as prime minister during most of Saud's rule, he issued a royal decree stipulating that the king would serve both as head of state and as head of government. Faisal also increased central control over the provinces by making local officials responsible to the king, creating a Ministry of Justice to regulate the autonomous religious courts, and establishing a national development plan to coordinate construction projects and social services throughout the country. Faisal's concern for orderly government and durable institutions extended to the monarchy. In 1965 he persuaded his brothers to observe the principle of birth order among themselves to regulate the succession, although the next eldest brother, Muhammad (born 1910), voluntarily stepped down in favor of Khalid (1912-82).
Faisal's rule ended abruptly in 1975 when he was assassinated by one of his nephews. A meeting of senior Al Saud princes, the sons and surviving brothers of Abd al Aziz, acclaimed Crown Prince Khalid the new king. Because some of Khalid's brothers, who would have been next in line of succession according to age, renounced their right to the throne, the king and the princes designated a younger brother, Fahd (born 1921), crown prince. Fahd ascended to the throne in 1982 after Khalid suffered a fatal heart attack. In consultation with his brothers, Fahd named Abd Allah (born 1923) crown prince and Sultan (born 1927) third in line of succession. The relatively smooth transitions following the deaths of Faisal and Khalid thus seemed to have resolved the issue of succession among the sons of Abd al Aziz. In 1992, however, Fahd altered the procedure for designating future kings. In the same royal decree that announced the impending appointment of a majlis, Fahd declared that the king would henceforth name and could remove the crown prince. Furthermore, the crown prince would not automatically succeed on the death of the king, but serve as provisional ruler until he, or a descendant of Abd al Aziz deemed more suitable, was enthroned.
Fahd's decree on succession established two precedents: a royal prerogative to choose and to withdraw approval for the crown prince; and an acknowledgement that the more than sixty grandsons of Abd al Aziz were legitimate claimants to the throne. Previously, Saudi kings had not asserted the right to dismiss a designated crown prince. By proclaiming such a right, Fahd revived persistent rumors originating in the 1970s that he and his half brother Abd Allah disagreed on many political issues. To forestall speculation that his intent was to remove Abd Allah as crown prince and replace him with his full brother Sultan, Fahd reaffirmed Abd Allah's position. However, in declaring that successor kings would be chosen from the most suitable of Abd al Aziz's sons and grandsons, Fahd implied that Abd Allah or any future crown prince was not necessarily the presumed heir to the throne. The decision to include the grandsons in the selection process and as potential candidates for the throne symbolized the readiness of Fahd and his surviving brothers to pass substantive decision-making responsibilities to a younger generation of the Al Saud. However, this decision also introduced more uncertainty into the succession process. At least a dozen men of this Al Saud younger generation, including sons of Faisal, Fahd, Abd Allah, and Sultan, were actively involved in the Saudi government and presumably had a personal interest in the question of succession.
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