Saudi Arabia’s Old Regime Grows Older

LONDON – The contrast between the deaths, within two days of each other, of Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz is one of terminal buffoonery versus decadent gerontocracy. And their demise is likely to lead to very different outcomes: liberation for the Libyans and stagnation for the Saudis.

But the death of Sultan, at 86, marks the beginning of a critical period of domestic and foreign uncertainty for the Kingdom. After all, Sultan’s half-brother, King Abdullah, 87, is still hospitalized in Riyadh, following a major operation last month. The regime is aging and ailing, and is perceived by the population as being on life support.

Meanwhile, the succession is still being argued. Sultan’s death is the first time that the burial of a Saudi royal has been delayed to give the ruling family time to decide on the next in line – a sign of internal discord (and concord on the continuation of dynastic rule).

The Saudi regime’s stability now depends on its ability to maintain unity and establish clarity in its system of succession. With the Crown Prince’s death, schisms are particularly threatening to the Kingdom’s stability (and that of oil exports), because the ruling Al Saud have swelled to 22,000 members, which has given rise to factional clashes among increasingly numerous claimants to power.