Change is coming to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and it may soon reach the top of the nation's monarchy. Amid the sweeping economic and political shifts underway throughout the tightly controlled country, anticipation is building about further adjustments to come. Chief among them is the king's impending abdication, which he is rumored to be planning for the near future in order to clear a path to the throne for new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The king's departure would come at a time when the nation is struggling to enact an ambitious and much-needed plan for economic reform. Many of the program's details are unclear or unsettled, and Riyadh is so determined to find the most effective mix of measures that it is heavily revising its National Transformation Plan a little more than a year after its introduction. Like its Gulf neighbors, Saudi Arabia has a penchant for drafting five-year economic initiatives: It has done so repeatedly since 1970. However, it has rarely revisited those plans so soon after implmementing them. As Riyadh rethinks its approach, it will likely set more achievable targets for employers in the private sector while scheming up new ways to bring in revenue from sources other than the oil on which it currently relies. Even the centerpiece of the kingdom's multilayered reform package — the initial public offering of a portion of state-owned energy giant Saudi Arabian Oil Co. — may be delayed until 2019, a year after its target deadline.
Riyadh's attempt to overhaul the Saudi economy has come alongside an effort to revamp the nation's politics. In addition to updating the rules of succession, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman named Mohammed bin Salman crown prince. Having already streamlined unwieldy ministries and established governing committees over the past two years, the freshly appointed prince wasted no time in creating a security directorate that united some of the intelligence functions of the kingdom's investigative police under his control. The king's expected abdication will mark an even more momentous political change, ushering to the throne the youngest Saudi king in nearly a century and the first monarch from the third generation of Saudi Arabia's founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.
The king's decision to step down is not a matter of if, but when. The real intrigue, however, lies in the changes that it heralds at the country's core, in the strict social mores and political Islam that form the backbone of Saudi society. To smooth the way for the kingdom's approaching leadership transition, the crown prince is likely tightening his grip over political expression, even as he tests the waters of social reform.
This crackdown was made clear in a recent string of arrests that raised questions about the motives behind them. So far this month, authorities have detained dozens of activists, scholars and popular clerics, some of whom are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Sahwa movement. Of course, there could be a simple explanation for the arrests: They may merely be part of Saudi Arabia's ongoing dispute with Qatar. The sheikhs in question publicly advocated mending ties with Doha, and Riyadh doubtless found the clerics' stance troubling — particularly since they boast millions of Twitter followers and the ability to shape public opinion.
By the same token, it's logical to expect the crown prince to try to rein in popular dissent. Given Twitter's popularity in Saudi Arabia, the ruling family has every reason to silence influential voices that spread narratives contradicting Riyadh's own. Protests are not unheard of in the kingdom, especially with regard to labor issues. And although mass demonstrations against the ruling family are rare, calls for popular dissent have circulated widely on social media channels in recent weeks. Whether the public will actually answer those calls with action is unclear, but the possibility is one Riyadh cannot afford to ignore at such a critical juncture.
Nevertheless, the recent arrests could also portend a larger, more gradual change underway. Much like the neighboring United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia may be adopting a more stringent stance against Islamist movements that resemble the Muslim Brotherhood and its anti-establishment ideology. The detainees, after all, belonged to the ranks of Saudi Arabia's independent clerics rather than those who work closely with the royal family and rely on Riyadh for financial and political support. The fate of the prisoners' independent peers in the months ahead will be an important indicator of whether some strains of political Islam are truly falling out of favor in the kingdom — and whether, by extension, a more liberal social atmosphere is in the offing.
Meanwhile, Stratfor sources indicate that when the crown prince takes the throne, he plans to separate the titles of "king" and "custodian of the two holy mosques," which are currently intertwined. (The latter refers to Saudi Arabia's control over Mecca and Medina, two of Islam's holiest sites.) Though Saudi monarchs have used the second moniker only since the 1980s, it is a centuries-old label intended to communicate the kingdom's religious legitimacy and power in the Islamic world. Should the crown prince abandon it, the move would position the king as a secular civil leader rather than a guiding spiritual figure. And though a small adjustment in some ways, it would make a big statement by a young ruler seeking to forge a new path for an ever-changing kingdom while managing dissent along the way.