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SAUDI ARABIA: Row In the Royal Family

3 minute read

For months King Saud loafed, moody and myopic, about his vast palaces, in the wreckage of the prestige he had inherited from his mighty warrior father, the late Ibn Saud. Everything he touched had ended in political disaster: his extravagant giving and building exhausted the treasury and debased the currency, his clumsy plots against President Nasser exposed his regime to ridicule and isolation in the Arab world. The crowning blow had fallen when his younger brothers, led by the openly contemptuous Prince Talal, tongue-lashed him last year in private family council.

Only the intervention of Ibn Saud’s second son, the able, hawk-nosed Crown Prince Feisal, 55, saved his throne. “He is our brother,” said Feisal, as he himself took over in King Saud’s name the direction of defense, finance and foreign affairs. He called off ill-judged Saudi forays into Arab politics, decreed a system of ministerial responsibility in the desert realm. Preparing the first real Saudi budget, Feisal pruned royal spending (not a single Cadillac was imported into Saudi Arabia in the first six months of this year), strengthened the riyal from 6.5 to less than 5 to the dollar, and re-established Saudi financial balance.

Going Through Money. But as the royal fortunes began to mend, King Saud, 57, began to go back to his spending ways and his authoritarian habits. The palace noted that Feisal’s new budget made inadequate provision for paying off retainers (and creditors), began denouncing Feisal as a penny pincher. King Saud himself took off on a tour among the desert sheiks, paying out blood money (sums Arabs owe for hurting, killing or maiming one another), passing out bank notes in the grand manner. This brought him squarely into conflict with Crown Prince Feisal, who is trying to substitute a modern budget for the royal private purse. Stiffly the King demanded fresh funds to replenish his overdraft, grown to a reported $30 million. As stiffly, Feisal refused.

The King’s next challenge to the brother who had saved his throne came with the recent arrest of Mohammed al Jasir, the scholarly editor of Riyadh’s weekly newspaper Al Yamamah (The Dove), who had been casually tossed into jail, in the old way, by King Saud. Feisal heatedly protested that such arbitrary actions infringed on his new powers as Interior Minister. The King stared at him through his thick glasses, lumpily stood his ground. Feisal turned in his resignation.

Going Through Channels. Once again a royal family council had to be called. Princes warned Feisal that, if he quit, the younger brothers might depose or kill the King, and told King Saud that civil war and bankruptcy might ruin the land if Feisal stepped down. By last week, after hours of debate, the council had patched together a compromise: the King approved Feisal’s budget and Feisal assumed responsibility for the King’s debts; Editor al Jasir was freed from jail, and the King conceded the importance of going through channels. Thus Saudi Arabia, still very much a family business, edged another painful inch toward constitutional monarchy, if not toward democracy.

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