Today’s analytical insight considers the role played by the Heads of Royal Courts and Crown Prince Courts in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”). It assesses the power plays that have taken place within these structures, and considers what they reveal about power and prestige in the Persian Gulf – with implications for both commercial and political interests.

Key Points

  • The Head of a Royal or Crown Prince Court essentially oversees the private office of the King or Crown Prince respectively. It is comprised of specialist advisors and technocrats that help inform his agenda, granting unparalleled access to decision making in a traditionally ‘closed’ system of governance.
  • These Courts’ remit extends to corporate projects and high-profile affairs involving the political elite, meaning that Court Heads can shape agendas as well as promote the influence of others – endowing them with a power incomparable to any corresponding position in Western political structures.
  • In many cases, this person is a close personal ally of the country’s top power players, either a blood kinship connection or a close family friend. Serving as the Head of a Royal Court awards an individual with unparalleled political access, as well as the ability to determine who ultimately wins an audience with the top decision makers.
  • On the other hand, however, it is an arena marked by a heightened level of power plays between rival figures, and can be exploited by individuals with questionable integrity records.

Political power in the countries of the Persian Gulf is often yielded by a single family, which should theoretically narrow down the field of potential power players. In reality, however, only certain branches of these (usually very large) ruling families actually enjoy access to power, and each brings their own wider network of non-royal confidants into the fray.

Moreover, the personalised nature of this familial system means that there is an added layer of secrecy and behind-the-scenes dealings that serves to further cloud the ability to spot high-level political influencers. Foreign actors subsequently find it difficult to meaningfully penetrate these ostensibly clandestine environments.

Identifying avenues of influence is therefore key to understanding who is in, who is out, and where the real decision makers are staffed. One position that Shadow Governance Intel believes holds particular clout in these systems of governance is the Chief of the Royal and Crown Prince Courts.

Power Plays in Riyadh’s Royal Court: A Tale of Unpopular Conduits
During the decade-long rule of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (2005 – 2015), Saudi’s Royal Court served as an important institution for propping up the King’s informal networks.

Atop Abdullah’s Royal Court sat Khalid Al Tuwaijri, the son of one of the King’s most trusted allies who belonged to a family with strong personal connections to the regime. Long standing relations between Abdullah and Abdulaziz Al Tuwaijri, Khalid’s father were first forged in the 1950s, when both men staffed an early incarnation of the National Guard.

Abdulaziz, a soldier by training, soon became a trusted advisor to Abdullah and eventually gained direct access to high level decision making following the latter’s rise through the ranks of the royal family. Their relationship spanned more than five decades, and both men grew increasingly central to political affairs as King Fahd’s (1983 – 2005) health declined over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s.

It is believed that Abdulaziz stepped down as Chief of the Royal Court in 2005, but nominated Khalid to take over the position; thereby affording his son sufficient patronage through which to carry on the family’s intimate connection to politics (The New Arab, 28.01.2015). In 2011, the Cabinet Court and Royal Courts were merged in what transpired as a minor power grab for Khalid, allowing him to usurp a rival structure as well as marginalise any potential competitors to his status as a no royal ‘insider’ (Arab News, 27.06.2011).

In the final stages of Abdullah’s rule, Khalid essentially determined who could gain an audience with the King, and is even thought to have exercised this policy of selection to members of the Al Saud family itself. Such was Khalid’s influence that one source claimed he was once referred to as the “uncrowned king” of Saudi – a hugely bold claim to make (Foreign Policy, 10.04.2012).

Indeed, it is telling that Salman’s first edict as King in January 2015 – even before the funeral of his brother Abdullah took place – was to remove Khalid from the Royal Court and replace him with a confidant of his own (MEED, 24.01.2015). Khalid’s swift dismissal confirms the view that he was a powerful gatekeeper to the deceased King, but reinforces the fact that his informal network did not extend to include additional royal princes such as Salman bin Abdulaziz.

The current Head of Saudi’s Royal Court is believed to be Khaled bin Abdulrahman Al Issa. He was appointed in July 2015 by King Salman, but takes on a generally low profile, with very few sources reporting on Issa’s activities. Despite his relative anonymity, it can be assured that Issa pulls major string behind the scenes on behalf of the King and his counsel.

Crown Prince Courts: Where Grey Cardinals are Born
Saudi Arabia’s current Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, adorns the ranks of those to have served as the Head of an important court, adding credibility to the argument that Royal Court gatekeepers should be noted by foreign actors.

Nine months after being named Saudi’s Crown Prince by King Abdullah in June 2012, Salman appointed MbS to his inner circle as Chief of the Crown Prince Court (“CPC”) or diwan. Hindsight now shows that this was a sign of bigger things to come from this then-unknown junior prince, who essentially used this position to facilitate his rise.

Between March 2013 and January 2015, MbS enjoyed great influence over who could access his father, who was also the acting Minister of Defence as well as Saudi’s king in waiting. MbS reportedly leveraged his proximity to his father’s power circle to involve himself on matters related to the army, air force, and navy (Washington Institute, 07.07.2014), which may have been a factor that led to his father appointing him Defence Minister when he was subsequently crowned King.

Given the prominence that MbS now enjoys in Saudi, gaining access to those within his CPC would be a major coup for foreign officials and investors. His oversight of the Public Investment Fund (“PIF”) and the Council for Economic and Development Affairs (“CEDA”) mean that huge fiscal decisions will be informed by those closest to him advising on specialist topics.

The View From Abu Dhabi: Succession Battles and Prestige
As is the case in Saudi Arabia, power plays have also unfolded between figures tied to the royal courts of Abu Dhabi.

In the final years of Khalifa bin Zayed’s tenure as Crown Prince, he appointed his eldest son Sultan (“SbK”) President of the CPC. SbK’s rising influence was reportedly a catalyst for heightened tensions within the Al Nahyan family, more specifically between SbK and MbZ, with the latter seeking to consolidate his own branch of the family’s access to political power in Abu Dhabi.

As the first-born son of Sheikh Zayed by a considerable distance, Khalifa’s authority goes relatively unchallenged among Zayed’s remaining progeny. However, there are only four years separating MbZ (b. 1961) and SbK (b. 1965), who both fall into the ‘generation in waiting’. Although MbZ is technically the uncle of SbK, there are only four years separating them, and this was believed to have created a rivalry with regards to the issue of longer term succession plans in the UAE’s capital.

Classified diplomatic cables from this period indicate that SbK abused his royal status and position as CPC Head for personal commercial gains (WikiLeaks, 09.07.2003). So much so that American officials believe he became known as ‘Sheikh ten per cent’, after acquiring a reputation for receiving kickbacks on projects. Being in control of the Crown Prince’s affairs is undoubtedly a responsibility that can be exploited by the more corruptible characters seeking to line their own pockets.

As such, MbZ apparently caught wind of this issue and used it to lobby against SbK’s candidacy to become Emir. As it transpired, Sheikh Zayed named MbZ as Deputy Crown Prince prior to his death, and thus handed his third born son a mandate to rule in the years following Khalifa’s death. But the strength of the CPC handed SbK a platform of influence that undoubtedly riled his uncle.

The current Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi subsequently appointed a half-brother to oversee the diwan in 2006. Hamed bin Zayed is ten years MbZ’s junior and comes from the Khaili line of Sheikh Zayed’s family. It is unclear whether MbZ dismissed SbK from the CPC immediately upon assuming the role of Crown Prince in 2004, or if the latter continued in position (albeit significantly neutered) for two years before being replaced.

Hamed has two full brothers, one of whom is Saif bin Zayed, the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior. As such, Saif is one of the UAE’s key figures and is among the most influential power players in Abu Dhabi’s government. MbZ clearly favours this ‘Bani Moza’ branch of the Al Nahyan family, which is reflected in their access to political prestige.

Although Hamed is not part of the ‘Bani Fatima’, it is clear that MbZ does not view him or his brothers as a rival to the throne, and has co-opted them into the fold of decision making (as is also the case with the ‘Bani Mohammed’ royals including Nahyan and Hamdan bin Mubarak).

In Sum
The position as Head of the Royal Court of CPC is demonstrably more than just a placeholder in Saudi and the UAE. With no equivalent in Western governance systems, the CPC Head acts as political adviser, regent, and trusted aid to the political elite. This empowers them in a slightly informal manner, based on a longstanding trust between both parties.

Western actors may find this system confusing and incomparable to a like-for-like structure in European or North American settings. That said, there is no reason to avoid communication in the first instance with these courts; on the contrary, they can serve as an in-road to meaningful dialogue and stakeholder engagement, and therefore break down barriers to doing business in the Persian Gulf.