The Middle Eastern Laws of Succession

Just as an example, how the Saudi succession follows the ancient tribal system of “agnatic rotation”

The Royal laws of succession are different from country to country. In Europe, most of monarchies apply the succession system based on primogeniture, meaning, the firstborn son or daughter inherits the throne. However, even in a very homogeneous continent where the royal families are all related by blood ties, the laws of succession are still different from nation to nation.

For example: Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth II couldn’t not reign by the French system.  Since the Frankish times (circa 500 CE), French monarchies apply what’s called “Salic law” (Lex Salica), which main tenet  is the principle of exclusion of women from inheritance of thrones, fiefs and other property.

By the Italian Laws of succession (House of Savoy), neither King Felipe of Spain could reign nor Prince William could be in line for the British throne. The Royal House of Savoy excludes princes who entered in what’s called “morganatic marriages”, (sometimes called a left-handed marriages) meaning a marriage between people of unequal social rank, which prevents the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage. Since both the King of Spain and the British prince had married commoners, they couldn’t succeed by the Italian Law.

“Competence of International Law:

From time to time questions have arisen concerning the succession to various crowns, dignities, and hereditary rights. These questions are primarily juridical and ought to be resolved through the correct application of each family’s Dynastic Laws.” (From the essay “Resolution of Monarchical Successions under International Law” (The Augustan, Vol. XVII, number 4, p. 977 by Professor Stephen P. Kerr y Baca)

Based on the known laws of Succession of European Monarchies, many people are unaware of how the Middle Eastern, especially Arab Monarchies, effectively work. The Succession in the Middle East is very different from Europe but each nation has its own system.

Middle Eastern monarchical systems have established various methods of choosing which among the eligible princes will rule.” (Michael Herb, All in the family: absolutism, revolution, and democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, p. 27)

Since the time of the ancient Arab tribes, we see a system called “rotation”. Usually, the heir to the throne was selected from among the King’s male descendants for his qualities, such as: physical force, nobility (if the prince was descended from another Royal line from his mother, it would make him more fit for the throne: even the King’s direct sons could come from different mothers) and also the most intelligent and popular prince among the people.

In succession based on “rotation”, all (male) members of the dynasty are entitled to the monarchy.

“In Europe, where dynasties flourished, succession was once determined by a show of strength among a ruler’s sons.  In time, however, it reverted to primogeniture, in which a ruler’s oldest male descendant acceded to the throneFor a variety of reasons, chiefly because of religious and tribal traditions,  Primogeniture has not developed among Arabian dynasties in quite the same way, because under Shariah law,  all sons of a man are equal and legitimate, even if they were born from illegitimate marriages.  Moreover, in pre-Islamic tribal norms, while the throne could have passed from one generation to the next within a particular family,  it was not necessarily passed from father to son.  Rather the authority also fell to a ruler’s brother, uncle, or cousin, depending on which of these oldest male relatives was  seen to possess ‘ the qualities of nobility; skill in arbitration; hazz or ‘good fortune’;  and leadership ’ “. (Joseph A. Kechichian, “Succession in Saudi Arabia”, 2001, p.10)


No firm principle specified which member of the ruling family had the right to rule.” (Michael Herb, All in the family: absolutism, revolution, and democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, p. 22)

The same principle was not only limited to the Arab Dynasties, but also the great majority in the Middle East.

“In the Ottoman Empire after 1617 the eldest living male of the dynasty succeeded, though this was not formalized legally.” (Alderson, “The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty”, 12-13. J.C. Hurewitz reviews succession across the Middle Eastern empires in “Middle East politics: the military dimension”, 18-27)

The only Arab monarchy that uses primogeniture is the Al-Khalifa Dynasty of Bahrain.

Alone among the Gulf ruling families, the Al Khalifa pass the succession according to a fixed rule. The constitution specifies that the eldest son of the ruler shall succeed him.” (Michael Herb, All in the family: absolutism, revolution, and democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, p. 132)

But even in Bahrain, the Constitution says that:

“… the Amir (ruler), during his lifetime, can appoint a different son as Crown Prince [successor] (Section 1, Article 1).

That’s in perfect harmony with the standards of the Arab monarchies.

Many defend that’s preferable when there’s a clear and fixed law of succession (as in Europe) once there is only one Prince to be the lawful heir. According to Montesquieu:

“When the succession is established by a fundamental law, only one prince is the successor, and his brothers have neither a real nor apparent right to dispute the crown with him. They can neither pretend to nor take any advantage of the will of a father. There is then no more occasion to confine or kill the king’s brother than any other subject.” (Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1748), The Spirit of Laws, Book V)

But looking back in history, it’s easy to see that a fixed system of succession based on primogeniture was not able to prevent the assassinations and criminal plots of people in line to the thrones.

In the Middle East, however, the institution of royal murder was notorious.

A ruler had to worry even about his own sons, who like the rest of his family threatened his power, and who might anticipate his death in their efforts to seize it. As a mirror for [Arab] princes once put it: ‘One obedient slave is better than three hundred sons; For the latter desire their father’s death, The former his master’s glory.’  (Nizan al-Mulk, The Book of Government or Rules for Kings, p.117)”

The infamous Law of Fratricide enforced the principle: the sultan, on coming to power, had legal sanction to murder all of his male relatives, and sometimes in fact did so; in 1595, on the accession of Mehmed III, nineteen of his brothers proceeded from the palace in coffins, murdered on orders of the new Sultan” (Alderson, “The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty”, 23-31)

As with many Arab ruling dynasties, the lack of a generally accepted rule of succession was a recurrent problem with the Rasheedi rule. The internal dispute normally centered on whether succession to the position of Amir [Prince] should be horizontal (ie to a brother) or vertical (to a son). These internal divisions within the family led to bloody infighting. In the last years of the nineteenth century six Rasheedi leaders died violently.”

“The Dynasties of Arabia do not resolve their disputes because they are families, bound by ties of affection. In the days before oil, family bonds did not prevent fratricide, patricide, and other varieties of intrafamily murder.” (Michael Herb, All in the family: absolutism, revolution, and democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, p. 45)

In the Arabic system, you may have dozens, even hundreds of lawful eligible princes, as in the Al-Saud Dynasty in Saudi Arabia.

“Sons of Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state) have been, thus far, the only eligible candidates allowed to serve as King or Crown Prince. As a result of the aging of this pool (there are an estimated 22 surviving sons, the oldest being in his mid-80s and the youngest in his 60s); a decree by King Fahd expanded the candidates to include the male progeny of King Abdul Aziz’s sons. This decree has expanded the pool to over 150 eligible candidates, though consensus and competency would limit this number.”

Again, that’s a common pattern for all the Middle East.

In vain would it be to establish here the succession of the eldest son; the Prince [King] might always choose another as every Prince of the royal family has an equal capacity to be chosen, hence it follows that the Prince who ascends the throne strangles immediately his brothers [once they all compete equally for the succession], as in Turkey; or put out their eyes, as in Persia; or bereaves them of their understanding as in the Mogul’s country,” (Nathan J. Brown, Constitutions in a nonconstitutional world: Arab basic laws, p.12 citing Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1748), The Spirit of Laws, Book V)

In Arabia [Arabic monarchies], all males within the ruling sublineages of the families have a theoretic right to the rulership. In practice, the succession generally goes to those whose fathers ruled (though not necessarily to the sons of the most recent ruler). These general guidelines leave a large number of shayks [Sheikhs] and princes eligible, especially if, as in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait [as in Ghassan], the succession has moved laterally to brothers and cousins instead of directly to the ruler’s sons.” (Michael Herb, All in the family: absolutism, revolution, and democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, p. 26, 27)

Although the Arabic system might create conflict, it also has its advantages. In the book “The Social contract” Rousseau commented the dilemmas of various methods of choosing Kings:

“Thrones have been made hereditary within certain families, and an order of succession has been established to forestall dispute when a king dies. The risk of having children, monsters, or imbeciles for rulers has been deemed preferable to the conflicts involved in choosing a good king.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, p. 63)

Like most fixed rules of succession primogeniture makes the selection of the ruler a lottery of birth. Efforts may (or may not) be made to form the character of the man, but the raw material is a given, and often it is found that gold cannot be made lead. The [Arab] Dynastic Monarchies, by contrast, avoid both sides of Rousseau’s dilemma. They chose, among themselves, Kings who are qualified (not children, monsters, or imbeciles”) (Michael Herb, All in the family: absolutism, revolution, and democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, p. 237, 238)

 The Ghassanid hereditary succession was similar (but a little different) to what we see in the past and present Middle Eastern Monarchies. The succession also “borrowed” the principle of “co-ruler” from the Roman and Byzantine Empire. The only mandatory law is that the sovereign has to be a male descendant of the last ruling monarch, although, as in Rome and Byzantium, adoptions were perfectly legal.

There’s no “hermetic” Salic Law (or Agnatic Succession, which is the limitation of inheritance to a throne or fief to heirs descended from the original titleholder through males only, excluding descendants through females, although the male claims from female lines have lesser value than the male’s) and definitely no Agnatic primogeniture, also “patrilineal primogeniture” which is inheritance according to seniority of birth among the sons of a monarch or head of a family, with sons and their male issues inheriting before brothers and their issues, and male-line males inheriting before females of the male line.

Here’s how the system of rotation worked for the first Ghassanid Kings:

The first Ghassanid King Jafnah I ibn Amr ruled 220-265, his successor was his son Amr I ibn Jafnah that ruled 265-270. His successor was his son Tha’labah ibn Amr ruling from 270 till 287. His successor was his son Al-Harith I ibn Th`alabah and ruled 287-307. His successor was his son Jabalah I ibn al-Harith I ruling 307-317. King Al-Harith II ibn Jabalah “ibn Maria” that ruled 317-327 and his successor was his son Al-Mundhir I Senior ibn al-Harith II ruling 327-330. His successor was his brother King Al-Aiham ibn al-Harith II and his heir was his brother King Al-Mundhir II Junior ibn al-Harith II and ruled from 327 to 340 and his Co-rulers was his brothers Al-Nu`man I ibn al-Harith II and Amr II ibn al-Harith II succeeded by his brother Jabalah II ibn al-Harith II succeeded by his nephew King Jafnah II ibn al-Mundhir I ruling from 361 till 391 with his brother Al-Nu`man II ibn al-Mundhir I as co-ruler. His cousin Al-Nu`man III ibn ‘Amr ibn al-Mundhir I succeeded him ruling from 391-418 and his son King Jabalah III ibn al-Nu`man succeeded him. His cousin King Al-Nu`man IV ibn al-Aiham ruled with his brother King Al-Harith III ibn al-Aiham from 434 till 456 with his son Al-Nu`man V ibn al-Harith. His son succeeded him, the King Al-Mundhir II ibn al-Nu`man ruled 453-472) with his brother King Amr III ibn al-Nu`man as co-ruler. His successor was his brother King Hijr ibn al-Nu`man. His successor was his son King Al-Harith IV ibn Hijr ruling from 486 till 512. His successor was his son King Jabalah IV ibn al-Harith ruled 512-529. His successor was his cousin King Al- Amr IV ibn Machi (Mah’shee) (529) and his successor was his cousin King Al-Harith V ibn Jabalah ruling from 529 till 569. His heir was his son King Al-Mundhir III ibn al-Harith that ruled 569-581) and his successor and part co-ruler was his brother King Abu Kirab al-Nu`man ibn al-Harith. From 581 till 583 the successor was his cousin King Al-Nu’man VI ibn al-Mundhir ruling from 581 till 583. Succeeded by his cousin King Al-Harith VI ibn al-Harith and his heir was his son King Al-Nu’man VII ibn al-Harith Abu Kirab. Succeeded him his cousin King Al-Aiham ibn Jabalah ruling until 614 succeeded by his brother King Al-Mundhir IV ibn Jabalah succeeded again by a brother, King Sharahil ibn Jabalah. Other brother succeeded him, King Amr IV ibn Jabalah ruling until 628. Succeeded by his cousin King Jabalah V ibn al-Harith ruled 628-632 and succeeded by his cousin King Jabalah VI ibn al-Aiham as the last ruler from 628 till 638.

The great majority of the Arab Monarchies, past and present, follows the “rotation”. Good and recent examples are: the Kingdom of Jordan, the Emirate of Kuwait, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the State of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman.

According to the book “World Royal Families” (2008) from Edward Riley, Sandra Forty and Judith Millidge:

Jordan (pages: 240, 241, 242, 243, 244 and 245) For most of his reign, King Hussein I (1935-1999) designated as his successor his younger brother, “at the time” Crown Prince Hassan (1947- ), but shortly before his death, he changed his will in favor of his son, the current King Abdullah II. This is a perfect example of the rotation.

Kuwait (pages: 246, 247, 248, 249, 250 and 251) This is a classic example of the rotation. Emir Mubarak I (1837-1915) had 12 children, including his successor, Emir Jaber II (1860-1917). After his reign, younger brother Emir Salem I (1864-1921) ruled. His successor wasn’t his older son but his nephew Emir Ahmed I (1885-1950). Ahmed’s successor was his cousin Emir Abdullah III (1895-1965). Abdullah’s successor was his youngest brother Emir Sabah III (1913-1977). Sabah’s successor was his 3rd degree cousin Emir Jaber III (1926-2006) who by the way was the 3rd oldest son. His successor was his cousin Emir Saad (1930-2008) and his heir was Emir Sabah IV (1929- ). Although he has 3 sons, his successor is his 3rd youngest brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf (1937- ).

Saudi Arabia (pages: 252, 253, 254, 255, 256 and 257) King Ibn Saud (1876-1953) founded the kingdom in 1932 and ruled until 1953. His successor was his son King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz (1902-1969). After him, his brother King Faisal (1904-1975) reigned until his assassination. His brother Khalid (1913-1982) succeeded him and after him, his other brother Fahd (1921-2005) ruled. The current King is Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz (1924- ) and his heir is his youngest brother, Crown Prince Sultan (1926- ). The 1992 Basic Law of the government states that the King must be a male descendant of King Ibn Saud. Recently, by a Royal decree of October 2006, future Saudi Kings will be selected by a committee of Saudi Princes. This is a revival of the Arab tribal custom of selection as above cited.

Qatar (pages: 264, 265, 266, 267, 268 and 269) The Sheikh Hamad Al Thani made his successor his youngest son, Sheikh Khalifa, deposed by his own son in 1995.

Dubai (pages: 270, 271, 272, 273, 274 and 275) Sheikh Maktoum (1943-2006) ruled Dubai from 1990 until 2006. His successor was his brother Sheikh Mohamed (1949- ) and although having other brothers, indicated as his successor, his son, the Hereditary Prince Hamidan (1982- ).

Abu Dhabi (pages: 270, 271, 272, 273, 274 and 275) Sheikh Sultan (1881-1926) ruled from 1922-1926, and his successor was his brother Sheikh Saqr (1887-1928). His successor was his nephew Sheik Shakhbut (1905-1989). Shakhbut’s successor was his brother Sheikh Zayad (1918- ) and his successor was his son Sheikh Khalifa (1948- ). His heir was already selected, his brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed (1951- ).

Oman (pages: 276, 277, 278, 279, 280 and 281) Sayyid Turki (1832-1888) was the Sultan of Oman from 1871 till 1888 and his successor was not his older son but Sultan Sayyd Faisal (1864-1913).

It’s extremely easy to see that the Laws of Succession in the Middle East are completely different from the ones in Europe.

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