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It is a question that even experts are not able to answer with certainty. Knowing exactly how many princes are members of the Saudi ruling family is a challenge.
“There are many discrepancies in the numbers, but it is estimated that there are at least 7,000 princes, in addition to the princesses, but with respect to them, there is even less information,” says Ahmed Zaki, an expert on the operation of the Saudi Arabian State the BBC.
“There is no other country in the world where so many people have that noble title,” he adds.
All belong to the royal house of Saud and are descendants of Abdulaziz bin Saud, who unified the Arabian Peninsula in 1932 giving rise to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it is known today.
Zaki, author of several studies about the country, indicates that the direct descendants of Bin Saud receive the title of princes at birth and have the right to occupy the throne , in theory. Determine how many that group is also complicated, but according to Zaki, there are thousands.
The polygamy is a key to understanding why the lineage of Saud is so prolific aspect.
Bin Saud married women from the dozens of tribes that lived in the Arabian Peninsula. It is difficult to establish how many wives he had, but the consensus is that a conservative estimate suggests that they were more than 20.
All of them had several children – at least 50, according to Zaki – who also married and contributed to the increase of the descendants of the Saud dynasty.
Distortion and corruption
The noble title comes with privileges that have repercussions on the economic, political and social dynamics of the country.
“One of the main effects of this reality is the distribution of power, which is materialized in the state funds allocated to the stipends received by members of the royal household and in the positions assigned to them,” he tells BBC Mundo Courtney Freer, policy specialist of the Persian Gulf countries of the London School of Economics.
An article published by Reuters news agency accounts for money management in Saudi Arabia.
The paper analyzes a series of leaked documents from the US diplomatic corps, dating back to the 1990s, which reveal data about the maintenance received by the descendants of Bin Saud, from bank loans that request and do not return and of other mechanisms to which they resort to increase their patrimony.
“A cable dated in 1996 estimated that the stipend system cost the country, which then had an annual budget of US $ 40 million, US $ 2,000 million, ” reads the Reuters article.
And he continues: “A distant relative of Bin Saud and low rank received US $ 800 per month, the amount received by his children ranged between US $ 200,000 and US $ 270,000, grandchildren were allocated approximately US $ 27,000, and great-grandchildren US. $ 8,000. ”
According to Ahmed Zaki, the current stipend of a prince, who is neither a son nor a grandchild, but the nephew of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, is US $ 10,000.
“If it is one of the members with the highest hierarchy in the family, the monthly payment is granted through barrels of oil, they are sold and they keep the money,” says Zaki.
The management of Saudi politics is another aspect marked by the existence of thousands of princes. The expectation of many is to occupy positions in the different organisms of the State.
Throughout the last decades, the descendants of Bin Saud have been in charge of the Ministries of Interior, Defense and Economy, as well as the different components of the army, the National Guard and the main institutions of the country.
So what happens in the gulf nation, depends on the decisions made by the royal family.
The distribution of power has led, to some extent, stability.
“It also implies that the decision-making process, and its consequent implementation, takes a long time because the governing apparatus and multiple family members are involved,” says Courtney Freer.
But there is an additional element that makes it difficult to drive the country.
“The fact that there are so many heirs with the right to access the throne is a challenge because many can aspire to occupy it,” explains Freer.
And that is a threat to the king of the moment, his close circle and the governability of the nation.
Winds of change
That risk, according to several analysts, is the one that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to counter. The current political conjuncture reflects the complexities around the line of succession of the House of Saud.
In early November, more than 200 Saudi officials and businessmen were arrested , including 11 princes, 4 ministers and dozens of former ministers.
According to Bin Salman, the purpose of the measure was to fight corruption. Frank Gardner – a BBC security analyst – recalls, however, that last year the prince bought a yacht valued at US $ 400 million . For many analysts it was a measure to consolidate power.
When King Salman, current Saudi monarch, assumed the throne in 2015, he introduced a series of changes. One of the most stirring was the decision to appoint his son, through a decree issued in June this year, as his successor, displacing family members that many saw as future kings.
“There is a council of elders that discusses the important decisions in the kingdom, when the appointment of Bin Salman was discussed, some of its members showed their disagreement, they were in the group of people arrested after the order of the crown prince,” Ahmed explains. Zaki
Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East specialist at the British analysis center Chatham House, tells BBC World that the arrests ordered by Mohammed bin Salman can “reduce the risk of other members of the royal family questioning his authority .”
But according to Frank Gardner, it is a risky bet because Bin Salman does not have the support that his father does.
” What is happening is unprecedented , previously, the power was shared between seven or eight brothers, but now it is concentrated in one person: the crown prince, anything can happen, the situation is very volatile,” he says. part Zaki.
And that uncertainty is linked to the thousands of princes of the House of Saud who descend from the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz bin Saud, and who, over time, have multiplied exponentially .