The Death of King Fahad

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.