After Abdullah, a new Saudi king, but little prospect for change

There may be economic and political rivalries within the dynasty. But its collective interest is in keeping the oil-rich nation on its longstanding course.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/file
Salman bin Abdul-Aziz became Saudi Arabia’s new king Friday after his half-brother, King Abdullah, died at the age of 90.

What does the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, de facto ruler since 1996 and formerly 2005-14, mean for the world, and the region? 

Already there are concerns that his successor, King Salman, is suffering from dementia. Abdullah had been in poor health for a long time with the running of the country farmed out to other members of a vast dynasty. 

His predecessor, King Fahd, had likewise been out of touch for close to a decade at the time of his death in 2005. Yet Saudi Arabia has largely maintained the same path since Abdullah's father Abdul Aziz al-Saud – often called Ibn Saud – conquered the country and named it after his family in 1932. That is, a policy of redistributing oil wealth and giving a free hand to the country's Wahabbi clerical establishment in enforcing its harsh and uncompromising brand of Islamic law. 

The death of a Saudi king always brings speculation about palace intrigue and potentially destabilizing conflict among the country's hundreds of princes over who should rule. But when the dust settles the world's largest oil exporter reverts to the status quo.

That said, the final years of Abdullah's ruler were unusually tumultuous ones for the region, with the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, and perhaps most importantly Egypt, appearing to threaten the post-World War II order. 

Yet the Saudi state managed to avoid being forced into making changes at home, and successfully worked to support the restoration of a friendly regime in Egypt under Fatah al-Sisi, the president who staged a coup in 2013. The Saudis dispatched troops to Bahrain to help a fellow Sunni monarchy crush political dissent. And the US, the kingdom's chief military partner, has largely abandoned the demands for democratic change in the region that characterized the first years of George W. Bush's presidency, shifting its focus back to maintaining regime stability and security.

This turmoil occurred while Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's sixth monarch, was in his twilight and barely managing the kingdom's affairs, which strongly implies it will be business as usual under Salman, his half-brother.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that Abdullah was "a brave partner in fighting violent extremism who proved just as important as a proponent of peace." Former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement that he was saddened by the passing of "my dear friend" and called Abdullah "a wise and reliable ally, helping our nations build on a strategic relationship and enduring friendship."

Youth bulge

To be sure, the potential pressure points for change in the kingdom are vast. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State now holds substantial territory and would dearly love to depose the Saudi monarchy, which controls Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. The Saudi-backed government in neighboring Yemen has all but collapsed, and is home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, another group that views the House of Saud as among its most important enemies.

Internally, the country's economy is entirely dependent on the extraction of oil, with high unemployment and a vast youth bulge. About two-thirds of Saudi Arabia's 28 million citizens are below the age of 30. And with global oil prices at their lowest in years, the kingdom's financial room for maneuvering is more constricted than usual. If a push for major change ever comes, it will probably emanate from the streets, not the Saud families ornate palaces.

The moniker "reformer" was applied by many analysts and newspapers when Abdullah became monarch, though little formal change was made during his decade as king. Women remain second-class citizens in the kingdom, not allowed to drive or leave the country without the permission of a male relative. Public crucifixions and beheadings remain commonplace for criminals, and dissent is not tolerated.

In 2004, Abdullah presided over the arrest of Saudis who had signed a petition requesting an elected consultative assembly. While he ordered the men released after becoming king in 2005, he and the leaders around him worked hard to crush any grumblings about democracy or fundamental change.

Raif Badawi, who wrote the blog "Free Saudi Liberals," was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "propagating liberal though" last year. On Jan. 9, he received his first 50 lashes in front of an approving crowd in Jeddah.

Generational change

Salman is largely seen as a place-holder king. Two kings from now is when some chance for change may come in. The current crown prince is Salman and Abdullah's brother, Muqrin, who will be the last of Abdul Aziz's sons to hold the title. The deputy crown prince is Mohammed bin Nayef, a grandson of Abdul Aziz who has been heavily involved in Saudi Arabia's domestic struggles with Al Qaeda. He has served as interior minister since 2012.

That generational change could, in theory, lead to conflict among Abdul Aziz's hundreds of grandsons (the country's founder had over 20 wives). Saudi succession is not based on the straight lines of European royal practice. Rather than handing the title to the oldest son of a current ruler, current law says that power should be given to the most "upright" of Abdul Aziz's descendants.

At any rate, the atmosphere for possible change in Saudi Arabia is arguably much worse than it was a decade ago, with the country's rulers convinced at the folly of political change by the unfolding disasters in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The power of Iran, a Shiite theocracy, and the Shiite dominated government of Iraq, also worries them.

And though a Saudi king has absolute power in theory, in practice he has to keep his relatives and the country's powerful clerical establishment on his side. In the family writ large, and among Saudis Wahabbi clerics, there is little appetite for political or social change.

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