Is the House of Saud Crumbling?
Aug 17, 2003
Based on information from three separate and high-profile opposition sources, the Saudi monarchy appears to be in an advanced stage of decay. These sources say that the situation will become critical when the current and ailing King Fahd dies because his death will lead to internal chaos. The various princes, who already quarrel with one another, will come to blows, and the government, which already struggles to provide adequate basic services, will crumble. A longtime U.S. ally and a major supplier of the world's oil, Saudi Arabia is the center of gravity for al Qaeda. And should the House of Saud collapse, there appears to be no single group ready to step into the void.
Three separate Saudi opposition sources, contacted by Stratfor, are convinced that the Saudi monarchy is rapidly crumbling. They each cite a number of factors to substantiate their claim. First, the legitimacy of the Saudi regime based on Islam is all but gone. Second, the state's ability to dispense basic services -- including water, electricity, healthcare and education -- is progressively declining. Third, the top leaders of the monarchy are increasingly unable to engage in collective decision-making due to internal disagreements.
Stratfor does not rule out the possibility of bias on the part of these sources. However, all three of them, based on information from their own networks of informants, arrived at the same conclusion. Their information resonates with what Stratfor has learned from other sources. Nevertheless, given the complexity of the situation, it is hard to confirm or refute the claims.
According to the sources, two simultaneous processes appear to be accelerating. First, al Qaeda seems to be consolidating its ability to operate in the kingdom. Second, the monarchy is corroding internally. Sources predict that the confluence of these two processes will lead to the collapse of the current order. They argue that an increase in attacks from al Qaeda -- which observers believe cannot happen without inside help from the Saudi military and paramilitary agencies -- coupled with the decay in the regime's ability to govern, will lead to the monarchy's collapse.
Until Sept. 11, the opposition calculated that the fall of the House of Saud would happen over a decade or more. But given recent developments, the opposition now anticipates that it will take place within a few years -- or, according to more conservative estimates, begin within a year. They say that the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath have had a tremendous impact on the kingdom's internal dynamics.
First, Sept. 11 boosted confidence among the populace regarding the ability of Osama bin Laden and the jihadists to confront the United States.
Second, the way in which the United States responded to the attacks -- especially the way officials criticized Wahhabism -- reinforced the widely held Muslim belief that Washington indeed was waging a war against Islam. This is important, since Muslims in Saudi Arabia predominantly follow the Wahhabi brand of Islam and have done so for more than two centuries.
Third, the Saudi populace, the sources say, increasingly views the House of Saud as being on the side of the United States in what it perceives to be a war against Islam.
Stratfor sources say they do not expect an organized civil uprising to be the tipping point. Instead, they anticipate a gradual decline that eventually will degenerate into fighting between the jihadists and government forces and in the inability of the government to perform routine functions.
These sources say both the al Qaeda consolidation and the regime's erosion are happening swiftly. This begs the question of what group will emerge as the strongest and most capable of filling the power vacuum. Given the weakness of the "peaceful opposition" -- as the sources describe themselves -- and the fact that the jihadists also do not enjoy a monopoly over popularity, Stratfor's sources refrained from making predictions regarding which group might step into the upcoming void.
The vectors of legitimacy upon which the Saudi state depends are Islam, the ability to govern and the ability to maintain internal security. Our sources say public discussion among Saudis in both cyber and real space is replete with anti-al-Saud and pro-jihadist views. The attitude toward the ruling family is remarkably different compared to pre-Sept. 11. And what only a handful of Saudi critics were saying about the House of Saud up until 1991 now echoes and resonates on a much larger scale. In the past 12 years, the House of Saud's legitimacy has declined steadily.
In the early 1990s, only a handful of scholars voiced dissent against the royal family, and their views were met with stiff opposition from the bulk of the religious establishment. Though not all of the ulema, or religious scholars, were staunch supporters of the House of Saud, there was a general abhorrence of the idea of khurouj, or uprising, for fear it would lead to fitnah, or chaos.
This is consistent with the understanding of the mainstream of Sunni scholarship throughout the caliphate centuries. However, over time, the Wahhabi establishment was penetrated by those who were convinced that the House of Saud had become illegitimate because of corruption, dealings with so-called unbelievers and the inability to protect the kingdom.
For the dissidents, winning support among the religious establishment was not easy. Obedience to the rulers is viewed as an Islamic imperative in accordance with the verse from the Koran, "Obey Allah, Obey the Messenger, and those in authority from among you." Interestingly, those who advocated dissent cited the works of the 13th Century scholar bin Taimiyyah, who is the intellectual godfather of the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad bin Abdel Wahhab. Bin Taimiyyah issued a fatwah, or religious edict, legitimizing rebellion against a ruler who was not ruling in accordance with Islam. Events since the first Persian Gulf War have provided the dissident scholars with what they feel is the evidence they need to attack the House of Saud. This explains the conversion of many scholars to the dissident camp, and the delegitimization of the House of Saud in the eyes of many Saudis.
Stratfor has learned that al Qaeda's presence and support in the kingdom is three-fold. First are the actual fighters, or the mujahideen, along with their leaders. Second is al Qaeda's support base among an increasingly sympathetic population. Third, and most significant, is its intellectual support among religious scholars. Sources say between 15 and 20 scholars openly support the jihadists -- a sign that al Qaeda might have a huge following within the broader community of religious scholars. This is confirmed by the fact that in May there was a report of a purge of about 2,000 scholars from seminaries and mosques in the kingdom.
This triple-tiered configuration makes sense, considering that al Qaeda is not a group in the classic sense of the word. Some of the scholars who have emerged recently are Ali al-Khudair, Ahmad al-Khalidi and Nasser al-Fahd. Most of these scholars are believed to be students of the late Hammoud bin Uqla al-Shuyabi, who was the former head of the Department of Theology at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud University. In response to a question about the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Shuyabi said the attacks were justified by Islam.
Privately, a majority of scholars agree with the jihadists, but publicly they maintain a moderate position. Our sources also say that there is growing moral support for al Qaeda because of the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq and because of the response from Muslim governments to U.S. foreign policy.
There also is a surge in crime and poverty in Saudi Arabia. Stratfor's sources say unemployment is at 40 percent and rising. The monarchy's inertia is preventing it from making serious strides in tackling these problems. Competition among the top princes only adds to the problem of a weak central leadership, the sources claim. They say that the most powerful princes rarely meet with one another. Moreover, the fact that the military is divided between the elite National Guard, which is loyal to Crown Prince Abdullah, and the regular Saudi military, under the command of Abdullah's half-brother, Defense Minister Sultan, is a long-standing fault line.
This actually might create a potential for a split within the family, considering that there is no agreement on who will be named crown prince once Abdullah assumes the throne upon Fahd's death. Although it is widely expected that Sultan will be named crown prince upon Abdullah's ascension to the throne, what is portrayed for public consumption is not always reality. Given that Abdullah is not a Sudairi and considering his rivalries with Sultan, it is quite possible that Abdullah might choose to nominate someone else. Remember that King Hussein of Jordan, on his deathbed, stripped his brother Hasan bin Talal of the crown princeship and gave it to his son, Abdullah.
Following the May 12 bombings in Riyadh, the United States -- no longer confident in the Saudis' ability to contain al Qaeda -- pressured Riyadh to allow the FBI into Saudi Arabia, for the first time, to investigate. The ability of the FBI to conduct its activity in Saudi Arabia has contributed to the delegitimization of the House of Saud in the eyes of many Saudis.
Against this backdrop -- according to a Stratfor sources -- there is chatter among the jihadist groups that assassinations will begin to occur against the lower-ranking Saudi princes. This source also said the princes are prepared to flee as many of them did after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He said he suspects that if they are targeted for assassinations, they likely will flee. This will in effect blind the royal family by cutting off their sources of information from regions within the kingdom.
The source said he believes that the loss of infrastructure actually will be the catalyst for a group -- such as one comprised of military officers, but no one above the rank of colonel -- to step in to safeguard basic services, especially water supply. He envisioned that -- to gain legitimacy -- this group would then ask religious leaders for their support. Although our source, who is close to the jihadists, was not clear on how, he says he is convinced that the jihadists would start targeting members of the royal family soon and that he doesn't expect the regime to survive for another five to 10 years.
Given that the picture is far from clear, one cannot predict in definitive terms the fall of the Saudi regime. Nonetheless, its decay is a sign of increasing turmoil in the Middle East and within the Muslim world in general. The collapse of the House of Saud will aggravate instability in the Middle East exponentially. The United States, besides trying to deal with a host of regional issues such al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will have to address not only the problem of oil supply but also Saudi Arabia's political instability. Saudi Arabia, it must be noted, houses the two holiest sites for the world's 1.3 billion Muslims and is the headquarters for Wahhabism, one of the strictest interpretations of Islam.