Saudi Arabia Politics Beduin Tribes and Merchant Families

Saudi Arabia Country Studies index

Saudi Arabia - Politics Beduin Tribes and Merchant Families

Beduin tribes and merchant families

The hereditary leaders of important beduin tribes and several merchant families have wielded political influence in the kingdom since its establishment. The principal tribes were the Anayzah, Bani Khalid, Harb, Al Murrah, Mutayr, Qahtan, Shammar, and Utaiba. In addition, there were at least fifteen minor tribes, including the predominantly urban Quraysh, the ancient Hijaz tribe to which the Prophet Muhammad belonged. The national guard, which has been headed by Crown Prince Abd Allah since 1963, recruited its personnel mostly from among the beduin tribes and its units were organized by tribal affiliation. Abd Allah's family ties to the tribes were also strong because his mother was the daughter of a shaykh of the Shammar, a Najdi tribe with clans in Iraq and Syria. Although the king and senior Al Saud princes did not usually consult with the tribal shaykhs before making decisions affecting national policy, the royal family routinely sought their advice on provincial matters. Consequently, tribal leaders still exercised significant influence in local politics.

The traditional merchant families, whose wealth rivaled that of the Al Saud, included the Alireza, Ba Khashab, Bin Ladin, Al Qusaibi, Jamjum, Juffali, Kaki, Nasif, Olayan, Al Rajhi, and Sulayman. During the long reign of Abd al Aziz, the royal family depended on these commercial families for financial support. After oil revenues became a steady source of government income, the relationship between the Al Saud and the merchant families began to change. Significantly, the monarchy no longer needed monetary favors from the merchants. Nevertheless, the families that had complied with Abd al Aziz's repeated requests for loans were rewarded with preferential development contracts. In addition, the post-1973 development boom led to the emergence of new entrepreneurial families such as Kamil, Khashoggi, Ojjeh, and Pharaon. The sons of Abd al Aziz continued to consult regularly with business leaders and appointed members of their families to government positions, including the Council of Ministers and the diplomatic corps.

The social changes resulting from government-sponsored development projects helped to create a new class of Saudi professionals and technocrats. These men comprised an urbanbased , Western-educated elite that emerged from both the traditional merchant class and low-status families. The technocrats have had responsibility for implementing the country's economic development programs. Since the mid-1970s, a majority of the cabinet appointees to the Council of Ministers have been members of this group. Saudi kings recruited technocrats to high government positions on the basis of their demonstrated competency and loyalty to Al Saud dynastic rule. However, involvement with the extensive Al Saud carried political risks because implementation of economic policies inevitably interfered with the privileges or business interests of one or more princes. For example, Fahd summarily dismissed three of the country's most respected technocrats, former Minister of Health Ghazi al Qusaibi, former Minister of Oil Ahmad Zaki Yamani, and former Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency head Abd al Aziz Qurayshi after their advocacy of specific policies had alienated several Saudi princes.

Other than the Council of Ministers, the new class of technocrats had no institutional base from which to express its views. Even within the Council of Ministers, the influence of this new class was circumscribed; they provided advice when the king solicited it, but ultimate decision-making authority remained within the royal family. Because political parties and similar associations were not permitted, there were no legal means by which like-minded persons might organize. Nevertheless, evidence suggested that the Saudi professionals and technocrats were dissatisfied both with their exclusion from the political process and their expected conformity to rigid standards of social behavior. Periodically, individuals of this class petitioned the king, asking him to permit broader political participation. On the most recent occasion, at the end of 1990, several technocrats signed a petition asking for the creation of an elected majlis, a judiciary independent of the ulama, and a review of the restrictive codes that applied to women. One of the boldest public protests was staged by more than forty educated women who drove their cars through the streets of Riyadh in the fall of 1990 in violation of an unofficial but strictly enforced ban on women driving automobiles.

The ulama, tribal leaders, wealthy merchants, and technocrats constituted the four major groups that enjoyed varying degrees of access to political influence. The major group excluded was the Shia minority concentrated in and near the towns of Al Hufuf and Al Qatif in the Eastern Province. Most of Saudi Arabia's estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Shia believed that the government, and especially the Sunni ulama, discriminated against them. Shia resentment exploded in a series of violent demonstrations in 1979 and 1980; at least twenty people were killed in these incidents. Since 1980 the government has tried to reconcile the disaffected population through development projects in Shia communities. However, in 1992 the Shia minority still had no means of participating in the political process, and most held low-status jobs. Saudi Shia, in fact, comprised virtually the only indigenous members of the country's working class. Foreign laborers, who had obtained temporary permits to reside in the kingdom, performed almost all manual labor.

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IntelliBriefs: Tribes of Saudi Arabia
Bedouin - Wikipedia
Saudi Arabia - SOCIETY -
Arab, Bedouin in Saudi Arabia | Joshua Project

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