The recent death of Saudi Kind Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has dominated headlines, prompting many to reflect on the leader’s controversial legacy. Abdullah in many ways straddled tradition and modernity, making attempts to introduce coed education and engage with Israel vis-a-vis Palestine while also entrenching the House of Saud’s hold on power and cracking down on those who challenged such the status quo. While many are interested in looking to the past, the real news in the Kingdom is the shakeup in the line of secession, which could be represent some of the biggest changes that the country has ever seen.
As the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) mourns the loss of their king, a new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Crown Prince, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, ascend. The House of Saud is notoriously complex, containing thousands of members who wield varying degrees of influence on power within the Kingdom. Thus far, the modern Saudi state has had two generations of rulers: that of Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud, from 1932-53, and the second generation made up of his sons, who have reigned from 1953 to the present. The key here is that recently named Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef (the second in the line for secession) will be the first person in the Saudi royal family from his generation to take power. This represents a major shift for the country in terms of tradition and, perhaps, policy.
While a fascination with death is a tad morbid, it is worth considering when discussing matters of secession. The current king is in questionable health – indeed, that may be why the position of Deputy Crown Prince was introduced in 2014 – leaving the Kingdom with one healthy son of Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Muqrin. While Muqrin’s health is not in the same state as Salman’s, it will bring the Kingdom that much closer to the next generation, who are more likely than the previous generation to have studied and lived internationally. Indeed, Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef (the second in line for the throne) studied at Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, a small liberal arts school in a city famous for music, hipsters, and beer.
The arrival of a new generation of more liberal leaders does not mean that the House of Saud will suddenly abandon its path of conservatism. Indeed, many an Arab is familiar with the sordid rumors that have swirled around the Saudi royal family for years. Although these alleged behaviors are at odds with the country’s conservative traditions, they are tolerated because they exist outside of the daily lives of most of the Kingdom’s citizens; such behavior within the Kingdom is not likely to be tolerated on a large scale, legally sanctioned, or spread among the Kingdom’s population. For the same reasons, even the most liberal members of the House of Saud do not stand a chance of implementing major democratic reforms any time soon. However, these changes will bring a generation of leaders who, if they choose to, can understand the West in a way that leaders from the previous generation likely could not.
Whatever the developments in internal policy, they will have to contend with a growing list of external events. The civil war in Syria seems to get worse everyday – KSA will have to balance their attempts to contain the expanding Islamic State with actions that might strengthen Syria and its backer, Iran. Inside and outside of Syria, Iran will continue to pose a problem for the House of Saud. An emergent Iran represents a real threat to Saudi Arabia, emboldening Shia groups in Yemen, Iraq, and perhaps eastern Saudi Arabia while also serving as a foil to KSA’s traditionally pro-Washington viewpoints. Finally, the price of oil has reached a low point as of late, weakening the tool traditionally employed by the House of Saud to ensure their continued survival. While KSA can certainly influence the price of oil through production levels, a key will be how much the country can ween itself off of an extraction based economy and ensure its viability when the oil inevitably runs out.
Balancing internal and external threats has always been the job of world leaders. In Saudi Arabia, leaders have the additional task of worrying warding off threats from within their own family. While this does not appear set to change anytime soon, it will soon be up to a new generation of leaders, Western educated but firmly rooted in a monarchical system, to decide how the country will proceed.