Last week a controversial news site Islam Times pronounced that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had died yesterday in Morocco at the age of 86. Quickly, the Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal responded, "I'd like to assure you about the health of the King. He is in excellent shape." That reassurance did not assuage oil futures, which rose throughout the day. In the midst of what was unfolding in Egypt, the news in Saudi Arabia took backseat. Major news organizations have not investigated thoroughly the Saudi story directly -- to verify definitively one way or the other. In the Middle East, however, you can never be certain of any situation. What the story did do, was bring back into the limelight an unenviable but inevitable prospect.
There is tremendous uncertainty that faces many regimes with aging octogenarians at the helm. The Economist played the role of Nostradamus last July, with the headline "Thank you and Goodbye: For good or ill, change is coming to Egypt and Saudi Arabia soon." In truth the day after has been a scary proposition hanging over the Middle East and the West as a dark cloud. King Abdullah has been a giant of history, ruling Saudi Arabia in effect since 1996 (first as regent and then as King starting in 2005). In many ways he has been a progressive and his passing could be a devastating blow not only to the country's leadership but also to the society-at-large and the wider Middle East. There was never a credible plan 'B'. The few weeks after King Abdullah will be pivotal. Yet stability will not be in the cards for the next several years regardless, until much more substantive changes occur and a formidable younger leader emerges in the country.
King Abdullah has a tremendous legacy that is often clouded by very real concerns of human rights abuses that have occurred over the last 15 years and the widespread luxury that the ruling family enjoys. However, the king, especially in recent years, has been a force for modernization and even progressivism in the Kingdom. In a blog post I wrote last year, I highlighted this succinctly:
In multiple ways the King is encouraging an entirely new ecosystem for education, from creating a new first-rate education program for gifted and talented students to modernizing and internationalizing the university network (see KAUST, which will also have both men and women in the same classroom). On human rights, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of creating a new human rights organization for the Gulf, as well as introducing 'human rights' to its educational curriculum. The Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia is also actively soliciting cases. And on women's rights King Abdullah is pressing the country to tackle taboos and cross new frontiers. He has appointed a woman for the first-time to a cabinet-level position (for women's education) for example. Saudi Arabia is also ahead of other Gulf countries in tackling domestic abuse. A recent report by a think-tank in Riyadh showed that 40% of articles during the first two months of the year in print media addressed women's issues.
In a volatile region that has seen in the last decade a continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the upheaval in Iraq, the stalemate with Iran, and the attacks by Al Qaeda (often specifically targeted at Saudi Arabia), the regime under King Abdullah has been able to maintain a sense of stability and order within the country. In May 2003, Riyadh was the site of violent suicide bombings that claimed 35 lives. It was the peak of the Al Qaeda pseudo insurgency which the king managed to effectively stamp out. This does not mean that Saudi has been without other problems, but as President Bashar al-Assad stated in a key interview after the Egyptian crisis to the Wall Street Journal, Arab societies need to keep "changing" and "upgrading" the society and institutions or suffer from the same uprising and desperation seen in Egypt. It is not necessarily about political rights; the leadership needs to provide positive change. As Tom Friedman wrote in his column yesterday, "China deprives its people of political rights, but at least it gives them a rising standard of living." This was the role King Abdullah played to a degree in Saudi, at least directionally.
Now, Saudi must prepare for what comes next. King Abdullah has been a beloved figure who united many in the country. Yet, until now, no grandson of the founding monarch King Abdul-Aziz, who died in 1953, has assumed the throne. The mantle passed from Sa'ud to Faisal to Khalid to Fahd and finally to Abdullah, all sons of King Abdul-Aziz. That means that since 1953, there has not been a father-son transition in Saudi Arabia. Today, the Crown Prince and King in waiting is Sultan, who himself is 83 years old. He has been reported to be suffering from severe illness intermittently over the past couple of years. King Abdullah created an Allegiance or "Princes" Council to deal with this uncertainty. The 35-member body representing the sons of the founding King Abdel Aziz (if the son was not alive then a representative would serve), would be tasked with electing a crown prince. However, in a paradoxical move, roughly two years ago, King Abdullah appointed Prince Nayef, a perceived conservative, as the so-called crown prince in waiting (the official title being second deputy prime minister). Prince Nayef himself is no spring chicken at 77 years of age. Moreover, reports have indicated that Nayef has not been a fan of the reform agenda espoused by King Abdullah.
Saudi Arabia has the same youth situation that faces Egypt, Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world, which is described most evocatively in the book Generation in Waiting, edited by Tarik Yousef of the Dubai School of Government and Navtej Dhillon. 55% of Saudis are under the age of 25 and there will have been a 13.7% increase in new university graduates between 2009 (when the unemployment rate stood at 10.5% officially) and 2013. This is a key driver for the new movement that is emerging in the Arab world of 2011 (described here). King Abdullah has been vociferously pursuing changes to satisfy the social and economic concerns of young Saudis. Simply put, it is hard to see Prince Sultan or Nayef holding the same confidence of these youth. It is similarly unclear as to who would succeed Prince Nayef (or Sultan for that matter) that would play that role. Much of the rest of the GCC has started to see that second-generation of monarchial leadership emerge in the last two decades (see UAE, Qatar as examples) but it is something that is a pandora's box for Saudi. And make no mistake about it. Many Saudi youth are very globally-aware, technologically plugged-in, exposed to the West, and will want to have input into who their next leader will be; at the very least they will want somebody representative -- at a minimum level -- in spirit, of their generation's concerns.
Saudi Arabia has a $500 billion dollar GDP and holds approximately a fifth of the world's oil reserves (although a recent Wikileaks cable may contest that). It is also a pivotal country in the Arab and Muslim world. Thus the next few weeks and indeed years will be concerning for Saudis, its neighbors (both near and far) and the world at large. The immediate consequences will likely be a hardening of both external and internal policy as the regime seeks to re-consolidate control and avoid instability. That would mean a halt to extensive forays of foreign diplomacy, such as the Saudi-Syrian initiative. It would mean a downplaying of its leadership role vis-a-vis what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere. Domestically, the old guard and religious leadership, that in some ways was marginalized by King Abdullah, may seek to reassert their influence. Ultimately, the Saudi state is predicated on an alliance between the religious philosophy of Abdel-Wahhab (see Wahhabi) and the political clan of the house of Saud. After King Abdullah, the conservative elements within the royal family may seek to move for more power in an alliance with religious hardliners, in the absence of a modernizing political leader who commands influence. This could lead to a slow-down of the very little political reforms that have been underway.
The likely scenario is a Saudi state at odds with itself and in reflective confusion. Even so-called reformers would not be able to describe a path towards sustainable progress that would be politically feasible. The truth is that in a post-King Abdullah world, Saudi Arabia is pandora's box. There will be uncertainty. There may even be instability. It will likely take more than a couple transitions before a stable leader emerges. Even then, that leader may not have the answers demanded by the country's young population. If anything is clear, it is that change is coming. The question now is, will it be for the better or for the worse?
Taufiq Rahim is a Visiting Fellow at the Dubai School of Government and blogs regularly at TheGeopolitico.com.