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Dissension, Tension and Succession in the House of Saud

In 1932, Saudi Arabia was established by King Abd al-Aziz and has been ruled by the Saud clan ever since. On the demise of the King, the Crown Prince assumes the throne, with a new Crown Prince traditionally appointed among the sons of Ibn Saud. However, sometimes things don’t go so smoothly. In 1954 the eldest brother, Saud, became King but it soon became apparent that he was unfit to serve. However, he did not want to go willingly, which led to considerable friction in the royal family. In 1964, after years of palace intrigue, Crown Prince Faisal was officially named King of Saudi Arabia, as Saud was sent into exile.

(The current King Salman succeeded King Abdullah on his death on January 23, 2015. Prince Muqrin became Crown Prince and Muhammad bin Nayef became Deputy Crown Prince. Mugrin is the youngest surviving son of Ibn Saud, while Muhammad is the first grandson of Ibn Saud to be officially placed into the line of succession, which was based on merit. The Allegiance Council was created in 2006 to facilitate the royal transfer of power.)

Ambassador Parker Hart gives a behind-the-scenes look at the events that led to the exile of King Saud, from his political war with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, to his sibling rivalries and jealousies with Crown Prince Faisal, and the intervention of his father in Saud’s personal and public matters. (He also briefly mentions a certain contractor by the name of Muhammad bin Laden, who would later be known as Osama’s father.) Hart served in the Foreign Service for 21 years before taking his post as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1961; he was interviewed by William Crawford beginning in 1989. Brooks Wrampelmeier discusses the short period of time following Saud’s removal Saud from the throne. He served as Political Officer in Jeddah from 1964-1966; he was interviewed by Charles Kennedy beginning in 2000. Go here to read about the grisly tradition of beheadings in Saudi Arabia.



A Declaration of Political War with Egypt 

HART:  Starting back in the 1950s, King Abd al-Aziz, the founding father, died in 1953. As had been foreordained, Crown Prince Saud bin Abd al-Aziz  (at left) took over. He was known to be a man of very little education and not particularly intelligent but a nice guy. He was good in tribal relations. Following in his father’s footsteps, he married extensively by a rotational system to keep up the connections with all major tribes.

His mental equipment wasn’t very good. He just never understood anything complex. He oversimplified things and made the wrong judgments. He was spending money hand over fist and giving the country the image of gross extravagance and corruption. The word had gotten around through the Arab world and to Nasser in Cairo.

I remember when I was in Cairo in the mid 1950s that Saud and his party came through on their way to Washington to make an official visit to Eisenhower and to ask for aid and support. Saud was already afraid of Nasser. He saw him as a real threat to his position and to Saudi Arabia but he hadn’t yet broken with him in any way. He came through to talk to Nasser before going to Washington.

Nasser said in effect as I remember it, “You can do two things for us and we set a great deal of store in our relationship with you by whether you are able to do this. We want the Gulf of Aqaba closed to Israel’s use. We want a decision made that makes it an Arab gulf. We want wheat from the United States and we need a lot of it. They’ve been hanging back on this.”…

Saud apparently made his promise to do his best for what Nasser wanted and they went on to the United States he was given a very good reception and he gave in return a very lavish banquet which I didn’t attend, since I had no business there, my responsibilities being in Cairo. Subsequently, Saud came back through Cairo, having won U.S. grant of a $5 million much-needed civil airport building in Dhahran. From the time of U.S. Corps of Engineers construction of Dhahran Airfield, finished in 1946, there was a solidly built but small terminal building, deemed sufficient by the Corps.

Saud had made no progress on the Gulf of Aqaba with [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles. It was a foregone conclusion that he wouldn’t. It’s an international waterway. As far as getting any wheat was concerned, he couldn’t budge Eisenhower any more than we could from Cairo. Nasser therefore gave him a very cold reception and said, “We got our wheat from the Soviet Union. I’ll send you pictures of it.”

Nasser (at right) then turned his propaganda guns on Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Said, the famous, vitriolic broadcaster for “Voice of the Arabs,” cut loose every day against Saudi Arabia and Saud’s corrupt regime and its pro-Americanism, its anti-Arabism, its money fever, its spendthrift ways. He said, “After all, this oil belongs to the Arab world and not to Saudi Arabia and its king. Oil is for the Arabs and should not be under the full control of such a regime as this.”

It was a declaration of political war. In Washington we could see this developing and we could also see that Saud’s was a very weak regime in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis came to believe that it was weak when [Syrian Interior Minister and later Vice President] Abdul Hamid Serraj held up a check in front of the crowd in Syria and said, “This is a million-dollar check. Everyone come here and look at it. It was drawn by Saud to kill Nasser.”

The reaction in Saudi Arabia was the acute embarrassment of the regime. What could be called the College of Princes, sons of the late King Abd al-Aziz, is the supreme body and they apparently concluded: “We’ve had enough. This Saud has run us into the ground. He’s ruined our reputation and our image in the Arab world. His wastefulness and bad judgment has created a dangerous situation. We’ve got to make a change and put Faisal into authority.”

So they went to Saud and they threatened him. Mohammed bin Abd al-Aziz, a kind of chip off the old block, is said to have made the more potent threats. Very reluctantly Saud made Faisal, of whom he was very jealous, Prime Minister with real authority and Saud stood away. He was not to involve himself in financial matters and he was to let Faisal develop his own program for the use of oil revenues. 

What have you done with this money? I want an accounting for your part of the budget. 

HART: [This was] late 1958. This action was taken and Faisal moved in on a situation where a budget for the country had never existed. Saud had let others handle the influx of oil money, which was now getting very large.

Abd al-Aziz, his father (at left), had handled the relatively modest income in gold sovereigns that had been ARAMCO’s pre-1945 royalties. In other words, the old fashioned Arab-Bedouin way was used: that the coffer of money was under your chair or your cushion and you as guardian, gave the key to some trustee who would hand out money to you as you required for public purposes. This was because it was not the sovereign’s money. The money belonged to the realm. The sovereign drew on it for what he needed and you gave it to people as needed. This was Saud’s inherited philosophy. There was no budget. Nobody had ever heard of a thing called a budget.

Faisal, we estimated, found a situation in which 60% of all the oil company income was being spent on the royal family for whatever they wanted and for the hangers-on who were innumerable. A lot of it was being handled by one ‘Id bin Salim, who was what the Arabs call a sa’is, a groom for the horses, but he was actually head of the vehicle department. He was black and was totally loyal to King Saud and gave everybody all the money the King wanted given. On royal air trips he handed out bunches of $100 bills to members of the household as they got off the plane in Europe or elsewhere.

The King had also built palaces after palaces, at least two of which he had never occupied. One was near Medina and was never quite finished. I saw it years later. One was built down in Abha on a beautiful site. He never went there. He built a tremendous palace at Riyadh with fountains playing and he built a big one in Jeddah. There was also another which was more modest in Dammam. Money was just flowing around. He had authorized a road to be built from Medina north to the area of Mada’in Salih and beyond.

It was given to Muhammad bin Laden [Osama bin Laden’s father], an Arab contractor without prior engineering. He put it right down the middle of a wadi and it was washed out by the first sayl [torrent].

There was also a bin Laden road project from Makkah to Ta’if up the steep mountains, a very difficult project. That was started and went way over budget immediately. There was enormous wastage from this.

Faisal took all this over. He reduced the amount of royal take from oil income from something like 60% to about 14%, as we estimated. He put civilians in charge of ministries. These were people in whom he had confidence, but he kept very close track of their expenditures. He once showed me a piece of paper which he kept in the pocket of his thobe which showed every minister’s budget. Every time he would meet them, and he would meet them often, he would say, “What have you done with this money? I want an accounting for your part of the budget.”

He really had things moving in a good direction. Of course, all the hangers-on asked Saud, “We can’t get any money. What is happening here? Aren’t you the King?”

They started heckling him and making life miserable for him. He got more and more jealous, because Faisal was getting the plaudits of a wider and wider circle of people. Finally, in late 1960 around November a budget was prepared by Faisal to take effect in March. It was submitted to the King for his approval and he decided he would make this a test case. He rejected the budget. When Faisal heard that it had been rejected by his half-brother, Faisal got up and left the meeting and his position as Prime Minister.

He went out and took some members of his family and camped in the desert which is the way his father always did things. Saudis always like to camp in the desert. They love the desert. Faisal just went off there and stayed by himself and refused to have any further contact with his brother, the King. Messengers went out and people tried to get him to come back. He brusquely told him he would not under any circumstances come back unless the King changed his position totally. He realized he wouldn’t and so said that he was not going to have anything more to do with him, that without authority he did not want the position of Prime Minister…

“You must give him your loyalty and your support. Swear that to me.” 

I think I should intervene at this point to say that Sheikh Hafiz Wahba, the Egyptian counselor to King Abdul Aziz (personal advisor for a great many years in Saudi Arabia) — I believe he had long since become a Saudi citizen, subject to the King although he was an Egyptian-born diplomat –told me the following.

A year or so before the death of the King in 1953, the King took him with him for a drive from the Murabba’ Palace –the old citadel (at right) which is now kept more or less intact as a historical structure in the center of Riyadh but at that time was way out in the desert from the small community that was Riyadh.

On this drive they hadn’t gone very far before the King spotted a house being built with structural reinforcing rods, re-bars, and concrete. He said, “What is this?”

With some embarrassment, one of his men said, “Your son, Saud, is building this for his house.”

King Abdul Aziz immediately demanded that the driver turn the car around and go back to the palace. He summoned his son, Saud, and said, “Is this true that you are building a house here?”

Saud confirmed that he was. The King then gave him a lecture right on the spot in front of Sheikh Hafiz. He said, “We are the people of the black tent. This is something you must never forget. Don’t build a house like that. You will separate yourself from your people. Stop that nonsense. Live simply and the Kingdom will be better off.”

Of course, the work stopped, but after the King died, Saud became one of the greatest builders of palaces that the whole Middle East has ever seen. These were palaces that he never even lived in. The King was disturbed by his son, Saud. He knew he wasn’t as smart as Faisal and he knew that Faisal was very smart and very able and that he had admirable qualities in other directions that were recognized by the King.

He summoned the two men — this being somewhat later than the event I just described — and Hafiz Wahba happened to be present when he summoned them. So Hafiz asked to be excused. The King, however, insisted that he remain and witness what was about to take place. The two princes arrived and the King said, “I demand that you, Faisal, give me your word of loyalty to your elder brother, Saud, as he becomes King. You must give him your loyalty and your support. Swear that to me.”

He made Faisal say it seven times. Then he turned to Saud and said, “I demand that you recognize the position of your half-brother, Faisal, to be Crown Prince, and listen to him. Give him your personal loyalty and consideration in response to his.”

He made him say it seven times. This was important in what happened later.

In the meantime, what had happened with respect to the Dhahran Airfield Agreement  [which permitted the U.S. to build a small air field near the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) in Dhahran and which was renewable on a year-to year basis] was simply that King Saud — this being at the end of the year 1960 — had been on the throne now for about eight years. He was feeling the heat of great criticism for his extravagances for his personal wandering away from strict Islamic rules of personal conduct such as drinking.

But above all, the criticism was directed toward his extravagance and his splurging of oil money for personal aggrandizement rather than for the good of the country. It gave Cairo the ammunition it wanted to try to overthrow him and to place on that throne, if they could, someone who would be more or less obedient to Cairo’s and Nasser’s wishes. Nasser considered at that time that the Arab world was pretty weak and flabby and that he was the natural leader. He was going to be the leader.

Ahmed Said, the broadcaster from Cairo who was full of vitriolic speech and who was feared in the Arab world but listened to, was fulminating against the Saud clan as unworthy to lead a nation with such resources, and that those resources belonged to the Arab world in general, etc.

The criticism had gone so far that King Saud was really in a panic. He decided to give notice on Dhahran Airfield to the United States simply to assert that he was master in his own house. So he did it and he gave one full year’s notice which was in accordance with the basic Dhahran Airfield Agreement…. 

1961: The Beginning of the End

During the fall of 1961, things were relatively quiet. We proceeded with incipient preparations for the change that would come about in April of 1962….In general, the commander of Dhahran Airfield was also head of a tactical arm of the U.S. defense establishment. That would be phased out — that role, that particular hat would be gone by April. With it would go a fair amount of equipment and it was important to decide which equipment would stay. We didn’t, as I recall it, get into that question during the fall of 1961, I believe it came just a little later.

There was a Cabinet that the King had rebuilt, after Faisal walked out, naming as Foreign Minister a man who was the only non-member of the Saud family to hold that title. His name was Ibrahim Sowayel. He later became Ambassador here in Washington. Sowayel was a nice man, a pleasant person and easy to talk with. We were on a very friendly and easy basis from the start. I don’t think he really had a great deal of authority or influence, because real decisions were being made by the King among members of his family with whom he could get along, which weren’t very many. I would say he made as few decisions as possible.

Having done what he did, in the very important decision regarding his relations with the United States, he was anxious to make sure that the United States didn’t just leave him alone, unprotected in a situation where there was an electric influence of Nasser over the whole Arab world. Anybody who stood up against Nasser was standing up, at that time, against the wave of Pan-Arab opinion which was very powerful. He would do so at his peril.

In the brief period of the fall of 1961 relations were friendly enough and we did what we were supposed to do in preparation to turnover Dhahran Airfield to the Saudi Government. We began to get visits by mediators who wanted to make sure we weren’t just going to leave altogether.

The King fell ill in the late fall of 1961. I was informed that he was going to go to the United States and wanted to go to Boston to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. It happened to be rather close to where I was brought up. I could visualize the situation better.

As time came for him to leave, intensive efforts were made within the royal family and outer circles beyond it, to get an accommodation between Faisal and the King. The King was going to leave and Faisal had to step in and take his place. There was no one else really to do that properly. Public opinion would demand it. When I speak about public opinion in Saudi Arabia, it really exists but it is a little different then the way we see it in the West, but it is strong. Information moves very rapidly in this network. Even when they didn’t have telegraph and telephone systems that worked, news traveled very fast and through immense distances. It is surprising.

Public opinion was strong for Faisal taking over. The King never traveled modestly and alone. He always traveled with an enormous retinue. On the eve of his departure they were all down at Dhahran saying goodbye to him before he took the plane the next day. The usual Arab farewell, or greeting, is to kiss the King on both cheeks and even on the nose or the forehead. They were all doing it as he sat there in his room in the ARAMCO hospital.

Faisal came, too. He did his duty like everybody else and left at once without saying a single word to the King. What had been arranged and what Faisal had accepted was something like the following:  Faisal was to be in the King’s place as a locum tenens [lit. “placeholder,” one who temporarily fulfills the duties of another], but only to manage the mechanics of the kingship without real authority to make any decisions of a consequence on his own.

In fact he would not take decisions. He refused to act in any other capacity than locum tenens. This was not something which the wiser heads wanted but that was as much as he would give. Somebody had to sit in that position and receive visitors and recommend things for the King. The King did not, in other words, give up being King. It was not like a sick and absent President turning over things to the Vice President with full authority to make decisions. Not at all.

A Successful Succession 

Q: What was the situation in Saudi Arabia when you arrived there?

WRAMPELMEIER: I think my first impression was how hot it was. It was mid-September when we got off the plane and it was like being hit in the face with a hot wash cloth. The general situation was, of course, that there was continuing tension between King Saud, who was still on the throne although he had been stripped of his powers in 1962, and his younger brother, Crown Prince Faisal.

The problem was finally resolved in November 1964 when the royal family got together and announced that they were transferring their allegiance from Saud to Faisal. The religious leaders endorsed that and Saud went into exile where he died several years later [in Athens in 1969].

Q: As political officer, albeit junior political officer, the major political event was when the Saudi princes all got together and said, “Faisal in and Saud out.” Saud was considered a pretty ineffective king and Faisal was obviously the person who was running things anyway. Did we have any feel for this or were we able to monitor this process? 

WRAMPELMEIER: Yes, we would get reports from various sources. Americans who were in Riyadh or other people would tell us what was going on. Essentially, the power had shifted from Saud to Faisal in October 1962 when the family agreed that Faisal as Crown Prince and Prime Minister would have the deciding voice on government affairs.

Faisal had then announced a ten-point program which included things like the abolition of slavery which was legal in Saudi Arabia at that time. It also talked about establishing a consultative assembly which actually was not formed until the 1990s by King Fahd. I forget the other things that were in the program but the purpose was to set forth various government reforms. 

Saud, probably egged on by some of his sons who lost power in this shift, tried to reassert himself. In the fall of 1964, just after I had arrived, there was almost a shoot-out in Riyadh between Saud’s royal guard and the National Guard and army forces which had surrounded his palace. The royal family decided that they must depose Saud.

Faisal very deliberately went off on a desert trip so he was not in Riyadh when the family made this decision. He only showed up in Riyadh once the decision had been made. We eventually were able to piece together a picture of how this was done. It was an instructive lesson in how the royal family could handle effectively a difficult succession problem.