(I normally don’t write on current events, since I’m not specialist in the politics of any country, but I had just finished Michael Herb’s excellent 1999 book All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, And Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies when I heard the news that the Saudi King had died. Since I think Herb's thesis about the resilience of Arab monarchies in a world that is basically hostile to non-democratic norms makes a great deal of sense, I thought I’d add my 2 cents.)
Observers of politics have historically applied the term “monarchy” to a variety of superficially similar but sociologically quite distinct regimes: the Roman empire, the Carolingian kingdoms, the Romanov autocracy, the Kuwaiti emirate, the British monarchy. To the extent that there are interesting similarities accross these disparate cases, they have to do with the existence of recognized norms for selecting effective rulers only from a specific lineage (what the Polity coders call an “ascriptive” selection process, or more informally, selection by birthright). Ascriptive selection processes are typically connected both with certain understandings of the basis of authority (e.g., the king should rule because he is the Custodian of Mecca and Medina, not because he represents the people) and an exalted status for the effective ruler; the titles “King” or “Queen” and their various equivalents – Prince, Sultan, Emir, Emperor, Caesar, Shah, etc. – are first and foremost markers of status, elevating the person of the monarch above the common run of people and entitling them to visible honours not available to anyone else in society. The combination of an ascriptive norm of selection to offices with effective political power (rather than purely ceremonial positions) and a particular set of person-centered rituals and symbols defines monarchy, though it does not explain how monarchies survive.
Indeed, given the magnitude of the shift towards democratic norms of justification over the last two centuries, the survival of monarchies presents a bit of a puzzle. Though ascriptively-selected rulers were extremely common before the 19th century, nowadays the number of national states with effective monarchies is tiny; the Polity dataset identifies only 11 countries (Bahrain, Bhutan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, North Korea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, and the United Arab Emirates) where there is a norm of selecting members of a particular family for the top executive offices, and you might notice that one of them is not normally thought to be a monarchy but a totalitarian regime. (The data excludes countries with less than 500,000 population; including microstates might add Tonga, Brunei, Monaco, and Lesotho to the list, among others.) In six of these (Bhutan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Swaziland, and the United Arab Emirates) powerful monarchs nevertheless share some power with other institutions, such as elected parliaments (in the Polity jargon, these regimes have “dual” executives, combining ascriptive and non-ascriptive selection processes). Moreover, once discredited, ascriptive selection processes have proven difficult to resurrect explicitly, even if we broaden our view to consider cases where ostensibly “republican” leaders have tried to ensure that control over the state passes to their sons or other family members after their death or retirement, as Mubarak tried to do in Egypt and Gaddafi tried to do in Libya. There are few “transitions to monarchy” in the 20th century, and the few I can find were quite short-lived. Though many highly personalistic regimes have shown a tendency to turn into family enterprises, they seem to have had mixed success beyond the second generation when recognized selection norms remain “republican” (consider, e.g., the failure of the Duvalier or Trujillo “dynasties” in Haiti and the Dominican republic); North Korea is exceptional in combining ostensibly republican justifications of rule with a successful ascriptive transfer of power to the third generation. We could look at these stylized facts and conclude that the remaining monarchies are mere traditional survivals, doomed to extinction once they run out of oil rents or superpower patronage (a view associated with Huntington, I believe). Or we could conclude instead that the remaining monarchies are precisely the most resilient examples of a once common political form; whatever the Saudi monarchy is doing, for example, it has served it well for over 70 years.
Herb argues that monarchies that have survived to the end of the 20th century (the book was published in 1999) are in fact distinctive in ways that make them very resilient. In particular, most of these are what he calls “dynastic” monarchies rather than “personal” monarchies. (Some people suggest that surviving monarchies in Jordan and Morocco do not fit neatly in either side of this dichotomy, but we’ll ignore these subtleties for the moment since the Saudi monarchy, at least, is the paradigmatic example of a dynastic monarchy). A dynastic monarchy can be compared to a family firm, with the family business being the corporate control of the state (and the enjoyment of its oil rents, in the Saudi case), the king as the family CEO, the senior male relatives as the key executives and company board, and most of the remaining family members as shareholders and lower-level employees. By contrast, in other monarchies the royal family does not play much role in governance or even in sharing the spoils of power; the king rules either in alliance with independent power holders (Barons in medieval Europe, powerful politicians in modern times) or as personal dictators who have managed to keep all potential challengers directly dependent on him through their individual political skills.
The Saudi monarchy fits the dynastic model quite well. Senior members of the family monopolize all important state positions, such as the defence, interior, and foreign ministries, and they play a role in determining the king’s successor. (Since 2007 there is even a formal institution, the “Allegiance Council,” staffed entirely by senior princes, that is supposed to select and confirm a new king and crown prince). Like a responsible company board, the senior princes have on occasion deposed rulers deemed to be irresponsible, and bypassed unsuitable candidates for the succession. For example, they briefly eased King Saud bin Abdulaziz from governance after he blundered with an ill-conceived plot to kill the immensely popular President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in 1958, and then more permanently in 1964, when they formally deposed him in favor of King Faysal; and the family chose not to make Muhammad bin Abdulaziz king in 1964, despite the fact that he was the most senior of the surviving sons of Ibn Saud, probably due to general agreement within the family that his temper and drinking habits made him a bad candidate, according to Herb.
Moreover, because the family is so large – Yamani quotes an estimate of 22,000 royals in 2009; polygamy plus time produces lots of male-line descendants (Ibn Saud had 43 sons by many wives, who in turn produced many sons of their own) – it can control not only the “ministries of sovereingty,” but place its members throughout the state apparatus, and in particular the armed forces, where they serve to deter coups. In fact, the extended royal family serves as a parallel information-gathering mechanism through the practice of “audiences” with royals, which it uses to both understand what the population is thinking in the absence of a free media and to provide particularized patronage; as Herb puts it,
The ruling families, and especially the Al Saud, use the size of the family to extend the majlis [audience] system to as many citizens as possible … Like American members of Congress the princes of the Al Saud act as intermediaries between citizens and the bureaucracy, earning personal credit for solving the problems that arise out of a bureaucracy that is, in the first instance, a creation of the Al Saud (p. 43).
The family, like many a successful political party (or mafia), has a very hierarchical culture (deference to older members is strictly enforced), effective private dispute-resolution mechanisms (including special jails for misbehaving princes, apparently), and fora where princes are expected to speak candidly and honestly about what they learn from their contacts with non-royals (princes who develop reputations as liars are not likely to go very far). And in return for lifetime submission and service, all royals receive an allowance and a state job, calibrated to their seniority and political importance, from the enormous oil revenues the Saudi state produces. (Firm figures are hard to find, for obvious reasons, but Herb cites estimates that suggest that at the height of the oil boom, in the 1970s, the al Sauds received at least 12% of all government revenue - an utterly fantastic sum).
One of the key things that makes family governance work in this context is, paradoxically, the indefiniteness of the succession rule. The succession norm in Saudi Arabia, for instance, only establishes that the kingship should pass to the most senior “able” male descendant of Ibn Saud, rather than simply to the eldest son or brother of the current king. One might think that this would exacerbate the GoT-style succession conflicts common in many monarchies. (According to Kotkin, almost half of all Romanovs in Russia from Peter the Great to Nicholas II died in family disputes over succession issues, and Herb notes that the Ottoman Sultans even formalized their right to kill their surviving brothers on acceding to power in a “Law of Fratricide” in the 16th century). But Herb argues that the very indefiniteness of the succession norm, combined with the emergence of the modern state with its many positions to fill, actually incentivizes family members to “bandwagon” against ambitious princes who threaten the corporate hold of the family. Though individual princes may prefer to rule unconstrained by the “company board” of their senior brothers and uncles, they will typically prefer that the state remain in family hands over one of their brothers ruling alone or with the support of outsiders. And those who are not contending for the rulership have little incentive to jeopardize their position by supporting candidates who take “extreme” measures in their quest for power, such as threatening intrafamily violence or directly appealing to outsiders by developing alternative patronage networks or offering genuinely liberal reforms. For example, when King Saud bin Abdulaziz did a tour of the realm in 1963 distributing money to tribal chiefs in an attempt to salvage his position and undermine his brother Faysal by securing the support of “outsiders,” uncommitted family members quickly switched to Faysal’s side; as Herb says, the only effect the trip had was “to enrich some bedouin shaykhs and to further alienate his brothers, who sought a decree from the ulema declaring Faysal the ruler and making Saud king in name only” (p. 97). (Shortly after, Saud threatened violence against Faysal, which sealed his fate; he was now deposed for good). Given that different contenders will normally tend to offer similar “bargains” to influential family members and that other family members do not need to pre-commit themselves to one side or another, there is little point for uncommitted princes to strongly support candidates that threaten to overturn the family monopoly on power, while the “losing” contenders can expect to be rewarded with money and influence even if they do not inherit the kingdom. By contrast, a rigid succession rule provides incentives for ambitious royals to use more extreme measures (e.g., poisoning your brothers, appealing to the people) that risk the family monopoly on power.
On this account, the Saudi family does not remain in power because of special family bonds, the certainty provided by a clear succession rule, or some Saudi cultural predisposition towards monarchy, much less because of some special symbolic capital of kingship among Arabs. And though oil helps, Herb rightly notes that the price of support is subject to inflationary pressures; more oil revenues mean potential contenders must pay more for support. King Idris of Libya was overthrown when oil revenues were flooding state coffers (take a look at the GDP per capita line in this picture), partly because he had no family members who had incentives to defend him. The effects of US support on the al Saud family are also quite ambiguous: on the one hand, they mean the family has access to intelligence and resources otherwise unavailable; on the other hand, they provoke a cultural backlash that challengers can and have mobilized. Instead, the family's endurance in power is due to the fact that there are few incentives for family members to mobilize outsider support in their disputes; attempting to do so merely makes family members bandwagon against you. Hence, despite many divisions, on crucial questions the family tends to remain united; and a ruling class that is unified on crucial questions – meaning, a ruling class that does not seek to bring in outsider support to settle its major disputes – is very, very, hard to overthrow.
This is not to say that the Al Saud family does not reach out to other sectors of Saudi society, distributing resources to favored groups or mobilizing symbolic capital to secure the support of the ulema, for example; but these actions would be quite ineffective if incentives pushed ambitious princes to mobilize outsider support on their own, “escalating” fights by, for example, courting the army or the clerical establishment as individuals. Moreover, even the mobilizing power of the symbols of kingship is typically quite limited. Herb tells a funny story that apparently circulated in the Saudi court in the 30s about the loyalty of the Bedouin to their emir:
As soon as it became clear that the Emir was going to be defeated, his Bedouin followers would be the first to turn and loot his army, justifying this by saying they were his friends and that as he was going to be looted in any case, they had more right than his enemies to the spoils (p. 62).
The Bedouin in the story did not dispute the legitimacy of the emir; they simply reinterpreted it to suit their interests when circumstances changed. In other words, as I’ve argued here in much more detail, the recognition of a norm of authority is compatible with all kinds of behaviours, including turning around once it becomes clear there are stronger challengers; to speak of the “legitimacy” of the Saudi king has very little explanatory power when we seek to explain why the Saudi system has endured. Indeed, in some respects the Saudi system has more in common with systems of single party rule than with medieval European kingship. The Al Saud are an odd party, to be sure; only women can join voluntarily (by marrying into the family) but without gaining any formal power (though they may have influence through their sons). But, with its internal dispute resolution mechanisms, its intelligence networks, its “service” requirements, the family basically mimics the institutions of an effective (if small) party on the Leninist model. And thus the incentives that keep it in power are not dissimilar from the incentives that kept the PRI in Mexico or the Chinese Communist Party in power: they are basically reasons for insiders to stick together and not seek outsider support, and thus to prefer corporate control of the state to going alone.