Brisbane, January 24, 2015 (Alochonaa):Saudi Arabia is an amazing country, full of contradictions. It is at once a modern regional power and a medieval monarchy. Its kings and princes drink alcohol and have children out of wedlock whilst presiding over one of the most strict and brutal Islamic legal systems in the world. It is a U.S. ally and deeply anti-American. It is part of the War on Terror and a massive financier of terrorism and religious extremism outside its borders. Its monarchy wields staggering wealth and power yet appears immobile and deeply vulnerable in the face of social conservatives. It is an Islamic regime where political Islam is the greatest enemy.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is now dead. His funeral, a male only event accompanied by dignitaries from across the world who lined up to say what a good man he was, neatly sums up the power of his position. About as liberal as Kim Jong-Il, Addullah attracted a fraction of the negative press of his North Korean counterpart. The most liberal phrase I ever recall him uttering was “women have the right to read” yet “reformer” is the word being used to describe him. Perhaps that title is easier to acquire when you lead a society firmly rooted in another century.
Saudi Arabia was founded by a man born in 1876. King Ibn Saud, as he is popularly known in the West, hacked out a kingdom with his sword and a handful of brutal religious zealots. He lived a life of banditry, murder, intrigue, danger, wealth, hardships and austerity. His story is simply incredible. This minor warlord of the nineteenth century not only has living sons but they still lead the Kingdom he founded. With his scores of young wives (concubines would probably best describe some) he was still fathering children into his old age, thus creating the anomaly of a noble family with only two generations of leaders since the 1800s. Only a handful of his 45 sons, however, are still alive and the time is drawing near for the third generation of the family to take hold of power.
The death of King Abdullah has caused oil prices to jump sharply, meaning there is an expectation of instability in the Kingdom in the near future. Speculation is rife that the grandchildren of Ibn Saud are unhappy with the current line of succession and the shuffling of ministries before King Abdullah was even buried indicates significant power shifts and potential changes of direction in some areas. Be that as it may, discord over succession doesn’t mean the end of the Kingdom any time soon. Keep in mind that that the new monarch, King Salman is ‘only’ 70 and could remain a figurehead for many years to come, irrespective of his own health problems, and the Kingdom has weathered disputes over succession well enough in the past. Succession disputes among Saudi brothers and cousins are so common that it would be more surprising if the House of Saud actually formalised succession rules and stuck to them without clan rivalry getting in the way.
More importantly, the Saudi princes have little to gain and a lot to lose through overt factionalism. Saudi princes live in a bizarre world of social privilege in a land of pure despotism and religious oppression. For many of them the rivalry over the throne and access to prestigious ministries and government roles is important, as one would expect, but too much squabbling, mudslinging or disobedience could fatally weaken their collective dominance over society. Rather than cause a descent into chaos, it seems just as likely that the discord within the ruling house will be manageable, though not amicable.
For at least one more generation the royal brothers and cousins might still love their privileges more than they hate or envy each other. After the third generation, however, the situation of the lesser nobility will become more perilous, especially if a father-son succession rule enshrines the dominance of one branch of the family and confirms the irrelevance of large numbers of brothers, cousins and second cousins. In other words, instability as a result of succession crises might not be coming soon but the risk will increase for at least the next few successions.
At this point the Saudis probably cannot have a peaceful, highly formalised and almost apolitical system of succession, unlike the more durable European monarchies. In fact, the Saudi monarchy has more in common with the unstable medieval European monarchies, where succession was frequently challenged and rivals frequently died horribly, than it does with those of modern England or Sweden. As mentioned, in Saudi Arabia royalty goes hand in hand with governance and a bureaucratic nepotism that doesn’t work quite the same way in modern Europe. To be sure, European aristocrats are more powerful than they admit to the general public and they too sit at the centre of a web of informal influence and patronage. The quality of that patronage and its relationship to more direct forms of political power or wealth is, however, quite different. A minor European can’t take the throne by gradually controlling ministries, oil revenue or security services; Saudi monarchs can and clearly do.
With King Abdullah gone the time is ripe for rivalry but external and internal threats go far beyond the princes’ circle. If there are changes in Saudi policy in the near future it will not only be because Abdullah is gone. Saudi Arabia is facing challenges to its monarchy and constitution which are independent of personalities at the top. The Iraq War, ISIS, rebellion in Yemen, the Arab Spring’s democratic political Islamism, oil prices, Iran and Afghanistan are all areas of concern for Saudi leaders.
Still, the Kingdom has proven amazingly durable already and we shouldn’t doubt its staying power. Trillions of dollars of oil money are hard to beat at the best of times. When backed up by American, French and British power, as Saudi Arabia always seems to be, we could very well still find ourselves musing over the chances of instability several decades from now.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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