Saudi Arabia: Dawn of New Era or Replay of Repressive Domestic Policies?
By Ali Alyami
The recent illness of King Abdullah generated media and analysts’ sensationalized speculations and prognostications about Saudi Arabia and what the future may reveal regarding the succession if King Abdullah’s back pain renders him unfit to rule. This reaction is typical among Westerners many of whom lack basic understanding of the nature of the Saudi royals’ first priority and their tribal “do or die” methods of settling differences amongst themselves. Their machinations in choosing the next King may not be discernible, but a king will be announced and the ruling family will continue to hold power. This is a given under the present circumstances. The issue will be whether a new king will continue the traditional absolutist ways of ruling or will he introduce a more participatory system of governing.
Saudi Kings have been overthrown, assassinated, fallen terminally ill and been replaced in the past. Each time this occurs Western pundits revisit their old notes, rehash their analyzes of the Saudi princes and speculate whether the next probable King would be a friend or foe of the West and its economic and strategic interests in Saudi Arabia. Absent from these speculations are the interests and well-being of the Saudi people, even when realities in and around Saudi Arabia demand deeper investigation of how domestic factors and changing variables would play in determining the Saudi royals’ policies and behavior.
Saudis’ expectations have been rapidly changing, albeit suppressed by the government, during the course of the last twenty years. The change in expectations can be attributed in part to the globalization of information and substantial increases in the number of educated Saudi men and women. Moreover, a large percentage of the Saudi population is now below the age of 25. These young people, including some royals, feel increasingly disconnected from old traditions due to their exposure to world cultures, languages, internet technologies, lifestyles and liberties. Such contacts have not only changed the Saudis’ perceptions of themselves, but forced them to look inward and focus their attention on their political, social, religious, educational and economic institutions. Given these realities, it is disingenuous and dangerous to expect them to settle for less than what they know are their rights, which have thus far been marketed to them as gifts from the ruling family.
During his reign, King Abdullah has demonstrated fractional awareness of the new realities in Saudi society which astute Saudi observers credit to trusted advisors like Prince Talal and Abdullah’s own offspring, especially activist daughters Adela and Sita. Although Abdullah has been dubbed a “reformer”, his “reforming” initiatives consist of royal decrees that cannot be enforced and can be easily dismissed by him or his successors. For example, Abdullah decreed the formation of a governmental human right association and commission. However, unlike democratic civil society, these associations’ members are appointed and paid for by the government whose abuses they are supposed to investigate and correct. Instead, they gather complaints and forward them to the respective government agencies involved. This is evidence that Abdullah was more interested in rallying public support to undermine his arch enemies, the Sudairi branch of the family, than embarking on true reforms that could have led to power sharing with his unreservedly disenfranchised subjects.
Another example of Abdullah’s decreed initiatives was the formation of a royal Allegiance Commission which was supposed to determine procedures for future succession to the throne. Before the appointed princes could institute a mechanism to layout succession procedures, Abdullah negated the purpose for which the Commission was established by appointing his brother, Prince Naif, as second in line to the throne. Such actions demonstrate that Abdullah’s reputation as a reformer is misleading and diversionary.
Given Abdullah’s poor health and age, estimated at 87, his departure from the scene is said to be imminent as evidenced by his transferring of substantial powers, including control over the formidable National Guard, to his son Prince Miteb. Moreover, his designated and possible successors, brothers Sultan, Naif and Salman are also aging and ailing, especially Crown Prince Sultan. This inescapable reality will create a new political environment with the passing of the last power wielding second generation.
Even though the passing of the remaining powerful ruling sons of the founder of the state, King Abdul Aziz, is fast approaching due to illnesses and age, it would be naïve to assume that the royals will demonstrate anything but unity once they carve up the political pie behind fortified palace walls away from the public eye. The process of coaching replacements starts as soon as a prince is assigned a government post. This is primarily done to protect the prince’s position but also serves the princes’ jockeying for political influence at national and international levels.
Given this ongoing intrigue, it’s safe to predict who among the third royal generation will succeed their parents. The Defense Ministry will go to Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid, the son of the gravely ill Defense Minister Prince Sultan. Prince Naif’s son Mohammed is predicted to inherit his father’s post as Minister of Interior if Naif becomes the next King or is declared unfit to rule due to deteriorating health. Naif is currently designated as second in line to the throne after Crown Prince Sultan who is terminally ill. However, Naif could be bypassed if King Abdullah re-activates the royal Allegiance Commission to select a King and a Crown Prince. If this happens then the throne will pass to the third generation, most likely to Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, currently the governor of Mecca.
Prince Khalid has the intellectual and experience capabilities to rule and to reconcile family differences which are expected to be more cut throat than their parents’. Like his father, former King Faisal, he is decisive and has strong support among many of his powerful cousins in the Sudairi branch of the family. No doubt that different factions within the royal family will continue to promote their varying agendas and oppose any hint of reforms that might undermine the family’s total control over every aspect of people’s lives. However, the royal family can no longer ignore the rising expectations and demands of the Saudi people.
The risk to third generation royals will be costly if they do not respond to the increasingly bold and unprecedented public yearning and demands for changes including power and wealth sharing, accountability, transparency and freedom of expression and choice. If the third generation rulers do not take tangible and timely steps to respond to the new realities in Saudi Arabia, people could be propelled into taking violent actions, joining extremists, collaborating with external forces to create mayhem inside the country or committing economic collateral damage.
Finally, no matter what king rules Saudi Arabia, he will be obliged to maintain close ties to the West, especially the US. Regardless of Saudi royals’ overt complaints and criticism of the US and its policies, they don’t trust any other country to protect them and defend their country. This situation will continue to put the US on the side of despotism against the Saudi people’s yearning and demands for freedom. This is not only contradictory to US ideals, but will increase anti American sentiment in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
This can only lead to greater instability which could draw the US into undesirable direct interventions to protect its substantial economic, strategic and political interests in the tyrannically ruled and defenseless Arab Gulf. States.