Change is inevitable with the death of King Abdullah. How will the ruling family handle this period of transition?
The succession is being managed smoothly
King Abdullah and his family have been preparing for this for years, and senior princes have a collective interest in avoiding open divisions, which could threaten family rule. The ruling family council has approved the succession of Salman as king, Muqrin as crown prince, and Muhammad bin Nayef, the interior minister, as deputy crown prince.Only the latter decision is really news. Any Saudi king needs to take account of different views within the ruling family and to balance different social consistencies, including the conservative clerics. In practice, Salman’s age and reported ill-health suggests he will rely heavily on Muqrin to govern, and Muqrin in turn will need to consult other major Al Saud players. This elite power-sharing militates against radical shifts in policy.
A deterioration in relations with the west is unlikely
Prince Muhammad is seen as a moderniser, mainly because of his sponsorship of a deradicalisation programme that utilises religious clerics, economic and family support to reintegrate would-be jihadis into society. Despite periodic differences with the US, the Saudi establishment has no real alternative to the US as its main security backer for the foreseeable future.
Relations with Yemen, Iraq and Iran are key
Prince Muhammad was nearly assassinated by an al-Qaida militant in 2009, so has personal knowledge of the dangers of jihadi militancy. And he has supported security co-operation with Iraq, even under the Maliki government – a positive sign for the prospects for tackling Isis.Saudi Arabia and Iran are at odds over most of the conflicts afflicting the region. Within Saudi Arabia there is an internal debate about whether continued tension is inevitable, or whether to pursue a rapprochement. The Saudi response to the rise of the Houthi militia in Yemen will be a key indicator to watch, as they see the group as a close ally of Iran. The Houthis will not be able to rule Yemen alone, and Saudi aid is a perennial factor in Yemeni politics, so Saudi diplomacy may be quietly involved in reaching some power-sharing compromise.
Plans to improve equality and education are in place … for now
King Abdullah set in motion long-term changes to the justice system, faster improvements to the education system, and opportunities for limited political participation for women and the Shia Muslim minority.
The question of whether women will be able to stand in this year’s municipal elections, as Abdullah had suggested, will be a key indicator of commitment to continuing such reforms.
Another potential challenge comes from the much-discussed risk of infighting among the younger generation. Abdullah institutionalised a system of building family consensus formally, by setting up (in 2006) the council that votes on the succession, and informally, by ensuring prominent contenders from the next generation have senior positions. Their roles as ministers, military leaders (like his own son Miteb, who heads the national guard) and provincial governors are consolation prizes that give them an incentive to protect the system of family rule even if they fail to reach the very top.
But a few have been left out, notably the sons of former crown prince Sultan. They have been shuffled out of senior positions in defence (Khalid bin Sultan) and intelligence (Bandar bin Sultan, who had been in charge of Saudi aid to the Syrian opposition, but was replaced as concerns about its jihadi component mounted). Their position will be another factor worth watching.
Economic change could lead to social upheaval
Structural economic shifts are under way. The price of oil has fallen 60% since its peak last year. But even if prices return to $80-$100 per barrel territory, a policy of continually increasing public spending will not be sustainable over the next decade, as the country faces a growing population and consumes more and more of its own oil. Managing the political implications of this will be the biggest test for the new generation.