« LDS and LGBT and the possibility of change | Main | The weekend sports and things that matter open thread »

January 28, 2015


The purpose of any system of succession is, as you say, to avoid civil war over the subject. And this is just as true in democracies as in monarchies. Which is why we a) have regularly scheduled elections, and b) have laid out in detail who gets office next is the President dies (or gets removed from office).

The problem with the Saudi "system" is that is has worked well during the current generation . . . but looks like a problem when the time comes to get to the next one. There might not be a civil war, or even a visible power struggle, the first time. But the pool of nominally eligible candidates in the next generation is so large that it will be almost impossible to simply keep going with a "concensus among the eligible males" approach. Just as you reach the point, with a village, where it gets big enough that you can't govern by concensus, the Saudi royals are getting too numerous to function without some kind of at least semi-formal election system. And they have no tradition which would help them figure out how to set one of those up.

And that's before you figure in the issue of their family's alliance with the Wahabist sect. With a small number of people, the clerics have had plenty of time to vet the next in line and apply an (informal, but real) veto if necessary. With hundreds of eligible males, that becomes a lot harder to do subtly . . . or even at all. But dropping the Wahabist alliance would be an even bigger leap into the unknown than the next generation will be.

It's not really that complicated to set up "some kind of at least semi-formal election system", it's getting the losers to accept the result as valid where a "tradition of democracy" helps.

At least until your highest court decides that those
"laid out in detail" rules for how to deal with contested elections is just too darn confusing, and sticks an oar in. For the present circumstances only. Not for use as precedent. If you have an election lasting more than 48 days, please consult your doctor.

It's not that complicated from our point of view. We, after all, are accustomed to elections in everything from national office to grammer schools classes. We grow up surrounded by them, and it would only be a matter of thrashing out the details.

But the Saudis are looking at terra incognita here. It's not just getting the losers to accept the results, although that would be a factor. It's also things like getting the winner to not feel inclined to punish anyone who contested the election, or supported someone who did. Because the latter is at least as good a way to generate a civil war as the former.

Or consider deciding who gets to count the ballots and deteermine the results. It's simply not something that they have dealt with in the past.

Well, I'm only halfway through Hodgson, but there already seem to have been a lot of succession wars, and the Ottoman empire (judging from Caroline Finkel's history) was awash with them. I suspect that getting an occasional dunderhead was, in the long run, a better deal.

Oh, and the link to the paper (which sounds very interesting) seems not to work.

As you all say, getting the losers to accept the results as valid is the truly crucial part of any election system. It's no coincidence that the American Civil War started after an election -- you might think of it as a succession crisis.

It occurs to me that one of the great stabilizing forces in large-scale democratic or parliamentary elections is the existence of political parties. Parties have lifetimes that stretch across multiple elections (succession), and give the powerful people who cause trouble for monarchical successions a stable power base.

The other thing that makes large-scale elections a stable succession system is that election-successions are very frequent, compared to monarchical ones. Because they're frequent, each one is less of a shocking shift, and troublesome oligarchs can develop strategies to deal with them and keep in business.


arrgh, thank you. Link is up now: http://www.qog.pol.gu.se/digitalAssets/1367/1367572_2012_3_kokkonen_sundell.pdf

I suspect that getting an occasional dunderhead was, in the long run, a better deal.

Better than that, getting the occasional dunderhead tended to loosen the power of the crown and aided the crawl towards democracy - it's no accident that Magna Carta and De Montfort's 'parliament' happened under crappy/weak kings.

Also tended to mitigate against costly wars of (attempted) conquest, which gave everyone some respite.

Just a semi-related note. A lot of our views of how things work in Saudi Arabia are predicated on ignorance.

There is, for example, this story in today's Washington Post: Make no Mistake: Michelle Obama just made a bold political satement. Except that she didn't even do anything particularly noteworthy by going bare-headed . . . from a Saudi perspective.

We think of women in Saudi Arabia as having to go totally covered in public, except maybe for the eyes. Which is true, but only for Saudi women. Non-Saudi Muslim women are required to cover their hair, but routinely leave their faces bare. And non-Muslim women, while they wear long sleeves and long skirts, routinely go bare headed just as Mrs Obama did. It not only is not a bold statement, it is standard practice. (And I speak from experience, having seen it in Rihadh with my own eyes.)

In short, Saudi Arabia is wildly unlike anything we have experience here. But it is also seriously unlike what most of us think we know about it. Which makes understanding doubly difficuly.

The purpose of any system of succession is, as you say, to avoid civil war over the subject

In that case, I have to say that the Islamic principles listed above have a poor track record. No sooner was the Prophet dead than the Muslims split into two factions over the succession, which remain unreconciled to this day. And more or less all the great Muslim states, such as the Ottoman and Mughal empires, have featured civil war and fratricide as a regular part of their successions. I suppose it's some sort of achievement that Saudi Arabia hasn't yet followed their example.

I suppose it's some sort of achievement that Saudi Arabia hasn't yet followed their example.

True, but the succession has not always been a bed of roses (see King Saud to Faisal transition, for example). Another succession was instigated by assassination.

It is a relatively new country (founded 1932). Give them time.

Looking at the TPM piece, I think that the title and the content are a little mismatched. While the title talks about the 'strangeness' of the system, I think what the article tries to get at is that the system of succession is one that hasn't really kept up with changes in mortality/life span and health care.

It is interesting that Western monarchies have "adapted" by having fewer children. This serves to concentrate the sort of activities, the pomp of royalty so that it is either inobtrusive (cf royal families of European nations) or make it into a source of touristic revenue (cf the UK) (how Japan fits into this is rather interesting, and I'll have a shot at a post about that later)

Obviously, royalty mirrors the tendency of developed societies to be composed of families with fewer children, with resources concentrated on that smaller number. I imagine that this is the result of a large number of pressures. What seems to be the case with the Saudi Arabia is the presence of perhaps unparalleled wealth in the form of oil has allowed them to basically ignore the these pressures and what I think Marshall is suggesting is that there is going to be a reckoning.


At least as important, I think, is that women of the House of Saud can (now) get some education, but they cannot use it. The only direction for their ambitions is to have powerful sons. Ideally, like Hassa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi, they can have multiple sons, and train them up to work together.

As several of you have pointed out, many Muslim states have had a history of violent successions, often featuring fratricide. My understanding is that these struggles rarely became true civil wars: they didn't break the state apart.

The Ottomans, for instance, more often than not had violent conflict between half-brothers over the succession -- but the state itself kept going for 600 years. I was just reading a paper about succession among the Mamluks, and it was even *more* chaotic and violent -- yet the state endured.

AFAIK, in almost all cases Muslim successional violence was kept as close to the Palace as possible -- it didn't involve widespread fighting or collateral damage to the general population.

Doc, that's a good point, and I can't think of an analogue with any other royal families. Still thinking how that interacts with what I think is the inability to cope with modern day advances in medicine, but as a first pass, because they don't want to give women a place in succession, they are unable to make any other changes, which sets a lot of patterns in concrete.

A couple more systems worth mentioning:

The Roman Empire had a quasi-dynastic principle, but with the caveat that any man with sufficient support in the army and Senate could seize power and kill the current leader. Messy, but a way around the 'imbecile king' problem.

The Ottomans followed Islamic tradition in that there was not always a given successor, but with the twist that whoever _did_ get the job went about killing all his brothers and uncles to ensure there would be no question as to his authority.

To put a finer point on wj's experience in Riyahd, I'd like to agree with Ted Cruz's praise of Michelle Obama, minus Cruz's cynical, ignorant, bullsh*t, conservative agenda, for not wearing the headscarf the other day.


I add my fulsome congratulations to Michelle Obama (she's role model for Saudi women and American women who work under Hobby Lobby Sharia imposed by conservative American sh*ts) for availing herself of whatever birth control methods her government health plan provides, including the morning-after pill, if in fact she does avail herself, and further tell the armed Mullah Cruz to shut his subhuman pig gob.

Note in passing: The principle of "most qualified among a group of heirs" is not just Islamic, but also existed among Buddhist kingships in traditional Southeast Asia - Siam/Thailand and Myanmar/Burma - as well, Europeans were often puzzled about it, if not indignant. They would, by *their* principles of primogeniture, decide that one particular candidate was the "legitimate heir" and that all his rivals were therefore "usurpers." (Interesting case - the prince who became King Mongkut [of "King and I" fame, but actually a far more serious and competent ruler] had a good claim to the throne when he was young, but rather than contest his older half-brother, he joined a monastery and stayed there for twenty years, reforming the Buddhist order and learning a lot about the world and the West which stood him in good stead when he eventually became king.)

But to the locals, this was normal, presumably for exactly the reasons suggested above - the ruler actually ruled, not simply reigned, and you therefore wanted someone who was in effect judged able by his peers. The study cited in the OP suggests that primogeniture helped explain stability, but I'd turn the relationship the other way around. You can only afford strict succession rules if you already have a state developed and stable enough to go on running without a real ruler. At that stage, you can afford to have (literal) idiots, e.g., in late Hapsburg Spain.

China, Vietnam, and Japan were more European-style in insisting on primogeniture, but in the first of these you also have as a cultural precept the right of rebellion (the "mandate of heaven" is seen in successful revolts against the throne) and in the last there's been a token monarch for centuries, since the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate at least.

The only thing "strange" is our assumption that there's just one right way to run a monarchy.

The comments to this entry are closed.