Friday Puzzler: Why No Coups in Saudi Arabia?

By Barbara F. Walter

King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud, receives President Roosevelt. VIa Crethi Prethi.
King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud, receives President Roosevelt. Via Crethi Prethi.

I had the pleasure of having lunch in D.C. on Wednesday with a bunch of extremely smart people. One of things we discussed was the puzzle of Saudi Arabia. Given that King Abdulaziz – the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia – had no succession plan, and given the fact that he fathered 45 sons by different mothers, why has there never been a palace coup?

You would think that with so many competitors to the throne and so much uncertainty regarding accession, the House of Saud would be rife with levels of treachery not seen since Hamlet. That has never happened. Why not?

  1. I’d say that it boils down to small handful of things. First, it’s possible that there have been attempted palace coups, but these are easily hidden from the media. Jon Powell and I found some alleged plots when coding our dataset, but nothing overt enough to be considered a coup attempt. Second, palace coups are really rare. We only have 18 of them in our dataset. My hunch is that it’s very difficult to plot a palace coup because cross-cutting allegiances mean that someone will end up letting the secret out. As your puzzle suggests, many may want to take charge, but organizing the players behind a single leader would be a difficult task. This would relate well to Casper/Tyson’s recent JOP article, which focuses on elite coordination. And finally, I suspect that the military wouldn’t be too happy with a palace coup. Coup plotters need at least tacit approval from the military to take and hold power, and they are fairly spoiled with resources vis-à-vis others in the region (relates well to Powell’s 2012 JCR article).

  2. They lost power twice a couple of centuries ago due to internal squabbling, and learned some hard lessons about cooperation.

    And as it so happens, there was an attempted coup by some young princes supported by Egypt’s Nasser, but that was quickly averted.

  3. Iran, of course. You’d have thought this would come to mind immediately in forum on political violence & I’m surprised it didn’t. Nothing like having a powerful external enemy, or the opportunity to war overseas for plunder to ensure domestic cohesion, forge national identities and/or simply divert the tendencies to create domestic conflict elsewhere.

    We define ourselves by whom we are not.

  4. Broadly Clayton puts it well. I would like to add another possibility. It may be that even though the first king did not have a clearly defined plan for succession, the traditional norm of the next eldest in family has ensured that either the eldest brother or the eldest son gets the seat and this tradition has overall social and military approval. Second, it is also possible that possible successors could have been bought out by the most powerful of the lot. This would have ensured that even though the throne is won by one, the resources are liberally shared by many.

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