Saudi King Abdullah died Jan. 22 in a hospital after suffering from a lung infection. The monarch's death has long been expected, and a succession plan is in place; former Crown Prince Salman has been named king, and former Deputy Crown Prince and Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Muqrin is now crown prince. However, King Abdullah's death comes at a time when the kingdom's domestic and foreign policy challenges are multiplying. Between the new king consolidating his position over the state through new appointments and the fact that there are only a couple of able-bodied second-generation princes left, Saudi Arabia is hurtling into uncharted waters.
The affairs of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of crude, have reached a critical impasse. The kingdom, whose Saudi-Wahhabi ruling partnership (established in 1744) has endured longer than the history of the American republic, is under tremendous pressure both domestically and internationally. Although internal threats from renegade Salafists and jihadists have existed since the early days of the modern kingdom in the 1920s, the monarchy has proved resilient in dealing with them because the principals of the regime (the sons of Abdulaziz) constituted a limited number.
Matters of Succession
Now, only two able-bodied sons of the second generation remain in the line of succession: 69-year-old Crown Prince Muqrin and 72-year-old former Interior Minister Prince Ahmad. King Salman is approaching 80 years of age. This means the grandsons of the founder — who number in the hundreds — will be competing for the leadership of the monarchy. Since the 1970s, the number of third-generation princes who hold senior government positions has been rising steadily. However, assuming that Prince Muqrin and Prince Ahmad remain healthy, the second generation could still control the throne for another decade or so. Prince Muqrin does not have a reputation for competence, and if he is in the line of succession when Crown Prince Salman dies, there could be an intervention to bypass him. If this occurs, Prince Ahmad is the likely replacement. Prince Ahmad is well-respected and known as a capable manager.
The Saudis have been hoping that the civil war in Syria would be a critical blow to Iranian influence in the region, but that conflict and the Saudi support for the rebels has gone terribly awry for Riyadh.
After Princes Muqrin and Ahmad, the contenders for the throne will all be third-generation princes. Among those, likely candidates for the throne are former intelligence chief Prince Turki, former governor of Mecca and current education minister Prince Khaled, National Guard Minister Prince Mitab (the son of the deceased king) and Interior Minister Prince Mohammed. Moreover, the new king, Salman, has two prominent sons: Deputy Oil Minister Prince Abdulaziz and Madinah Gov. Prince Faisal. The deceased monarch has three other sons who are in prominent positions: Prince Turki, governor of Mecca; and Prince Mishaal, governor of Riyadh; and Abdulaziz, who is deputy foreign affairs minister.
Near-Term Challenges for the Kingdom
The next 10 years will be difficult for the Saudis, given the rising number of external challenges and how they shape the kingdom's domestic political economy. The biggest challenge will be the kingdom's historical foe, Iran, reaching an agreement with the kingdom's historical ally, the United States, on its nuclear program. Tehran's international rehabilitation will augment the rise of the Islamic republic's Arab Shiite allies at a time when Saudi Arabia finds itself totally alone in trying to manage the growing fragmentation in the majority Sunni Arab world.
The Arab Spring unleashed a growing number of problems that the Saudis are trying to juggle. The most immediate is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose republican Islamist model of governance represents a direct challenge to the kingdom's monarchical system based on support from the retrogressive Salafist religious establishment. As a result, the financial well-being of Egypt, the world's largest Arab state, has become the responsibility of the Saudis.
The Saudis have been hoping that the civil war in Syria would be a critical blow to Iranian influence in the region, but that conflict and the Saudi support for the rebels has gone terribly awry for Riyadh. The Islamic State has emerged, and the United States is reluctant to support the Saudis' desire for regime change in Damascus. The Saudis had hoped that the emergence of the Islamic State as a major geopolitical jihadist force in the Syrian-Iraqi theater would undermine Iranian influence in Iraq and the Levant. Not only has that failed to occur, but the Islamic State has also become a major threat to the Saudis, who have already been dealing with al Qaeda's influence on the domestic and regional fronts. Saudi Arabia cannot fight Iran and the Shiites unless it first defeats jihadism and reclaims ownership of Salafism, which is being pulled in two directions that are equally dangerous for the Saudis. On the one hand, jihadists are challenging the Saudi Salafist paradigm. On the other hand, Salafists are moving into the electoral process, as is the case with Egypt's al-Nour Party.
Closer to home, the Saudis have to struggle to sustain Jordan, an intrinsically poor country, in the wake of the fallout from the Syrian conflict. On its east coast lies the Shiite-majority island kingdom of Bahrain, whose Sunni monarchy would have fallen had the Saudis not sent in military forces to quell a democratic movement. To the south is Yemen, where a failing state and al Qaeda were already threats, but in the past two months the Iranian-allied al-Houthi movement has grown from a regional sectarian rebel group to the most coherent national force.
The Saudis are also invested in lesser but not insignificant arenas, such as Morocco, Libya, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Together, these regional hot spots are a major strain on the Saudi treasury. Moreover, the price of oil recently has dropped precipitously in a climate in which global dependence on Saudi crude had already eased. All of this is happening while the royal family has had to increase domestic spending to prevent Arab Spring contagion from taking root in the kingdom, where key individuals among and close to the ruling elite have acknowledged the necessity of reform.
However, it will be difficult for the Saudis to enact reform that will damage an already weakening relationship with the religious establishment. There is also the question of the Shiite and Ismaili minority communities within the kingdom — segments of the population that are being contained through a mix of incentives and punishments (the latter more than the former). Even among the Sunni majority, there are the liberals and the hardcore Salafists who have to be balanced and appeased.
Over the course of the next two decades these domestic and international problems are likely to increase, and it is unlikely that the last remaining second-generation princes or third-generation royals will be able to deal with them while maintaining the status quo in Riyadh. The Saudi kingdom will be forced to change the way in which it has been doing business since its inception.