With the death of King Khalid, Saudi Arabia faces a major crisis of leadership. As expected, the transition went smoothly as the throne passed from Khalid, the symbol of power, to Fahd, the expediter of power. But it is the symbolism embodied within the monarch which is threatening Saudi Arabia with genuine problems as Fahd ascends his long-awaited throne.
The success of the House of Saud in unifying the country and then pulling it from its feudal roots into the vortex of international power politics is due to its skillful manipulation of its own people. Saudi Arabia's monarchy is a vast, well-honed political machine which has risen out of the roots of its own culture , not imposed from above.
The uniqueness of the Saudi monarch and of the king's ability to maneuver results from the many roles the monarch encompasses. Abdul Aziz, the first Saud king, began his career as the emir of Riyadh. The emir, a position described in the Koran, wins his place by amassing sufficient power to ensure that the Shari'a (Islamic code of laws) is enforced. After unifying Saudi Arabia and declaring himself king, Abdul Aziz also assumed the title of imam (lawgiver) as a means of giving his newly won political powers legitimacy.
The king is also the sheikh. Under the old Arab tribal system, the sheikh mediated but did not arbitrate disputes within the country. His authority was based on his prowess at war or, more accurately, his strength over others. This authority now rests on his ability to maintain control over his restless subjects through his commitment to their interests and their values.
Saudi Arabia's march into the modern era has added to the traditional functions of the sheikh the duties of head of government administration and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
To rule, the king must be able to control all of these sources of power and authority. As chief emir, he has to maintain the support of the other emirs. As imam, he must have the support of the Ulema (religious leaders) by maintaining orthodoxy. As sheikh, he has to command the respect of the tribes. As president and commander-in-chief, he is required to manage the bureaucracy and retain the loyalty of the military. In all, it is an incredible balancing act.
Its continued success rests on the almost mystical relationship between the ruler and the ruled. The basic elements in the formula are a deep sense of Bedouin values, infinite patience in maintaining the network of personal relationships which makes the country function, and, above all, Muslim piety.
Of Saudi Arabia's four previous kings, only Saud lost contact with his subjects. In the end, he was forced into exile by his family and replaced by Faisal who met the expectations of the traditional sheikh while laying the foundations of the modern state. Khalid did not have the stature of Faisal but he did understand his symbolic role. The nuts and bolts of government were left to the ambitious crown prince, Fahd.
Now Fahd must assume the role of sheikh, a position for which he has neither the following nor the temperament. Unlike his predecessors, Fahd is more feared than loved or respected. Fahd has created the image of an able administrator who has both a sense and a love of power. His interests lie in operating the bureaucracy, solidifying the professional military, and playing a major role on the international scene. His image of piety is weak if not absent. Camping with the Bedouins or conducting the endless majlis (parliament) as Khalid did is not his style. In short, Fahd does not meet the expectations of his subjects.
But the new crown prince, Abdullah, has his roots in Saudi Arabia's tribes. He has all of the qualities of the traditional ruler but none of the abilities demanded by a modern state.
The danger to the House of Saud is that if Fahd fails to hold the political machine together he will not surrender quietly as Saud did. And, unlike Saud, he has the military power to challenge any attempts to oust him. Fahd and his full brother Sultan control the professional military, but Abdullah controls the equally powerful National Guard, the military arm drawn from the tribes. Each has his loyal camp within the royal family.
The stage is set for the long-awaited tremors under the House of Saud. The predictions that the royal family will be overthrown by radical elements is not likely to happen. Rather the challenge to the rule of Fahd is more likely to come from the traditionalists in the society supported by elements in the royal family. A crisis can be avoided only if Fahd can demonstrate the political genius that has been the hallmark of the House of Saud.