Besides, Saudis know that their country would not exist without the Al Sauds. Until the 20th century, there had never been a state that covered similar territory. The prized Hijaz fell under the sway, successively, of rulers in
Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul, who ignored the Arabian interior, or Najd, as worthless. King Abdul Aziz, the current king's father, built his kingdom through a mix of outright conquest, appeals to the faithful, strategic marriage and clever
diplomacy. He and his heirs sustained it by carefully cultivating tribal, business and religious leaders and through the wildly generous patronage made possible by oil wealth.
The sheer size of the Al Saud clan has also helped cement the nation. There have been eight generations of Saudi rulers, dating back to 18th-century sheikhs who held sway in a few oasis towns near present-day Riyadh. Many have been
prolific. King Abdul Aziz himself sired some 36 sons and even more daughters. The first son to succeed him, King Saud, fathered 107 children. King Abdullah is believed to have 20 daughters and 14 sons. The extended Al Saud family is now thought to number
some 30,000, though only 7,000 or so are princes. Of these, only around 500 are in government, and only perhaps 60 carry real weight in decision-making.
Aside from controlling positions directly, the Al Sauds exert continued influence through marriages with such respectable Najdi families as the Al al-Sheikh, who are descendants of the founder of Wahhabism. Many princes still surround
themselves with traditional retainers knows as khuyas, or “little brothers”, who typically represent Bedouin tribes. Tribal links are also maintained through selective manning of such institutions as the Saudi National Guard.
Such layers of influence have proved gratifyingly coup-proof, but the real clincher has been the perpetual fountain of oil wealth. Forty years ago King Faisal, the great reformer and moderniser, having ousted his profligate brother
Saud, decreed that the royal family's take from oil exports should be capped at 18%. That rule probably still applies today, though it is hard to tell because the state budget remains opaque. The current king, Abdullah, is known to frown on extravagance;
he likes desert rambles in his specially fitted bus, whereas King Fahd liked flying his entire court to his holiday palace in Spain's Marbella. No doubt, however, the Al Sauds are still comfortably off. Even lowly princes are believed to receive a
monthly stipend of at least $10,000. The combined wealth of the Al Sauds is impossible to guess, but it must be hundreds of billions of dollars.
Commoners do complain about undue spoils, but money on such a scale also buys consent. Al Sauds and their loyalists control all of the dozen Saudi daily newspapers. They own the two most respected pan-Arab dailies, as well as four out
of five of the most popular Arab satellite TV channels. The exception is al-Jazeera, which is one reason why the cocky channel is subject to a ruinous boycott by Saudi advertisers. Aside from keeping top western lobbying firms on their payroll, the Al
Sauds can also flatter influential Muslims by offering them privileged access to the crowded holy sites. “Their money turns lies into truth,” says one human-rights activist.
Caesar, thou art mortal
Yet Saudi kings, despite the lack of constitutional constraints on them, are far from absolute rulers. They have, first of all, to account to the Wahhabist religious establishment that has been their traditional legitimation. This can be a serious
handicap. King Fahd, who ruled from 1982 until last August, is said to have lavished favour on religious causes to atone for his own youthful reputation for high living. And although kings appoint senior members of the clergy, they have no direct
oversight of the 700 judges who run the sharia courts, the backbone of the Saudi legal system and the bane of reformers.
The king must also answer to his own enormous family. By tradition, succession is not vertical, passing to sons, but horizontal, passing to brothers in order of age or, sometimes, merit. During the 52 years since the death of the
kingdom's founder, many of his sons, of whom a dozen are still in line for possible succession, have used their long wait to create powerful fiefs. Prince Salman, now 69, has been governor of Riyadh since 1962. His full brothers include Sultan, the
81-year-old crown prince, who has been minister of defence since 1962, and Prince Nayef, minister of the interior since 1975. All have appointed their own sons to top posts.
It is often claimed that these full brothers, called Sudairis after the family name of their joint mother, have stood in opposition to other princes. As crown prince, for example, Abdullah, who has no full brothers, was forced into some
humiliating retreats from initiatives he had sponsored, even after the 1995 stroke that incapacitated King Fahd (another Sudairi) and left Abdullah supposedly in charge. But some analysts identify at least five competing spheres of power within the
ruling family. This, it is said, explains the sometimes erratic course of Saudi policy, with reforms being promised and then retracted. Elections to municipal councils, for instance, were first mooted in the 1970s, but held only last year, and then only
for half the seats.
Certainly Abdullah, aged 82, appears to have more leeway now that he is king. So far he has pointedly refrained from the customary naming of a second deputy prime minister. This is the traditional post for a runner-up to the throne.
Crown Prince Sultan held that position under Fahd, and is now first deputy prime minister. This has been read as an oblique signal of discomfort at the prospect of power passing to Prince Nayef after Sultan. The 72-year-old interior minister is the most
prominent, though not the most senior, contender, but he is widely regarded as moody, abrasive, capricious and prone to intrigue. The king's appointment of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the flamboyant former ambassador to Washington, as head of a more
powerful National Security Council is seen as trimming Nayef's sails further.
King Abdullah has taken other small steps to boost his already considerable popularity. One of his first acts in office was to free three prominent dissidents, whose jailing, for the crime of calling for a constitutional monarchy, had
sent a chill through reformist circles. Soon after, Abdullah decreed that the kingdom's little-observed National Day should become a public holiday. Conservative clerics complained of creeping secularism, but ordinary Saudis loved it. The king also
decided that no one should kiss his hand any more.
Such gestures reflect Abdullah's own attachment to Bedouin egalitarianism, but also an awareness that times are changing. Since the reign of King Faisal, who was murdered in 1975 by a disgruntled nephew, the Al Sauds have suffered a
steady loss of public goodwill. One symptom of this has been the presentation of citizens' petitions demanding reform, a trend that began in 1990 and reached its height in 2003 before a crackdown in the last year of King Fahd's reign. Although the Al
Sauds' response to such polite prodding has been outwardly muted, many of the reforms undertaken in the past 15 years have been aimed at meeting petitioners' demands. In 1992, King Fahd decreed a basic law that for the first time outlined an
institutional structure for the state. (Saudi Arabia has no constitution, claiming that the Koran serves this function.)
King Fahd also created the Majlis al-Shura, or consultative council, which has since expanded to 150 members. It is easy to dismiss this all-appointed body as window-dressing, but even detractors admit that its legislative record is
good, and its membership broadly representative of the kingdom's diversity (with the huge proviso that it excludes women). Senior princes speak of elections to at least some Shura seats in the future. Already, prominent members have called for greater
power to grill officials and authorise budgets, and even talked about launching public debates on controversial issues.
Such gradual progress goes some way towards appeasing the many Saudis who would like to see a fuller devolution of autocratic powers. Many of them claim to be untroubled by another issue that will affect the country's political future:
the succession. Both King Abdullah and his designated heir are old men, but the general assumption is that the Al Sauds are not yet ready to see power pass to the next generation, King Abdul Aziz's grandsons. Many suspect that the brothers of the ruling
generation could not agree on whose son should get the prize.
Clearly it would be good for the country to have a younger, more dynamic king, or at least a clearer mechanism for transferring power. For the time being, though, Saudis will just have to wait. One young prince, Muhammad bin Abdullah
al-Faisal, who runs one of the kingdom's largest private firms, the Faisaliah Group, finds the political arena overcrowded, but thinks the family will sort something out. “The floor that stops me feeling uncomfortable is that there is no one in the line
of succession who wants to go down in history as the one who lost the kingdom.”