Saudi Arabia’s decade long royal death watch is over. King Fahad, the longest-serving king in Saudi Arabia’s history (24 years), is dead. For six weeks, the King lay in a hospital fighting death, something he has done, in reality, ever since he suffered a massive stroke 10 years ago. The identity of the new king is clear, but who will really wield power is not.
As when Marshal Tito was dying in a divided Yugoslavia, the King’s royal relations (who are also his political underlings) fear that the ruler’s death will unleash chaos. This fear comes at a time when the wider Middle East is abuzz with talk of democratic change. From Egypt to Lebanon to Iran, political passions are mounting, along with a renewed optimism. Street demonstrations, elections, and political debate in cafes and on the Internet are flowering as never before. Even the conservative states of the Arabian Peninsula are embroiled in lively disputes about women ministers, Shia representation, Islamist participation in the political process, and even the future of their ruling monarchies. In these dynamic circumstances, Saudi Arabia stands out.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia seems trapped in a state of suspended animation, its body politic sick and infirm. The country is caught between two choices: progressive reform or continuing paralysis and decay.
Divisions in the kingdom are sharper than ever, and the King’s death might deepen them further. Two rival camps - the so-called reformers and the hard liners - are forming in the Al Saud, the world’s largest ruling family, with 22,000 princes and princesses.
The reformers have less authority but are the acceptable face of the Saudi dictatorship internationally. Their new leader, King Abdullah, appears to have legitimacy because of his seniority in the family. The reformers talk about partial municipal elections, national dialogue, and the rights of women, who they hint may one day even be allowed to drive cars!
Even these limited efforts are obstructed by the hardline Wahhabi camp, which controls the security forces, the judiciary system, and the real levers of domestic power. Indeed, Prince Naif, the Minister of the Interior and leader of the hardliners, has either silenced or imprisoned hundreds of the key Saudi reformers.
One reason for the weakness of Abdullah’s faction is that he has scant support within the family, because the Al Saud center of power lies with the al Fahads - the six full brothers of the dead King Fahad, most importantly Prince Sultan, the Minister of Defense, and Prince Naif. On the surface, the succession has proceeded as expected, with Crown Prince Abdullah becoming king now that Fahad has died. In spite of this, Abdullah may not be able to shape the future, because he seems doomed to lose any showdown with Naif’s forces.
Abdullah’s power base is in the National Guard, and his claim on the support of Saudi Arabia's modernizing forces. Both are insufficient to check Naif. A key early test of Abdullah’s kingship will be if he can succeed in freeing the hundreds of political reformers now in prison, especially three respected academics whom he encouraged to make reform proposals, only to be incarcerated by Naif.
Now that King Fahad is gone, old scores among his numerous brothers and half brothers, not to mention the thousands of princes in the next generation, will need to be settled. But don’t look for hope in the new generation, which is not necessarily young or progressive. Indeed, the Al Saud clan’s third and fourth generations are divided not only in political and religious affiliation, but also range in age from 20 to 90 years old. All await a chance to rule.
So Saudi Arabia’s people confront this key question: can an authoritative ruler emerge who will reunite the country in the progressive tradition of the late King Faisal? The sad likelihood is that, given the power of the obstructionists under Naif, a decisive and energetic king is unlikely to emerge. The direction the country will take in the longer term can best be assessed by whom Abdullah chooses to name as the successor to Prince Sultan, Naif’s chief ally who has already been named Abdullah’s heir.
If Abdullah (aged 83) can perhaps skip a generation and appoint a more open-minded younger figure, there may be hope. But Naif (age 77), his full brothers - including Sultan (age 82) - and their supporters within the Wahhabi establishment appear too entrenched to allow that to happen. Like the geriatric successions that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union, the succession in Saudi Arabia seems to be only a step in an inexorable march toward political decay. Russia found a young reformer in Mikhail Gorbachev too late. It may also be too late for Saudi Arabia.