A US journalist believes that Saudi Arabia is nearing a crisis point since it will have to deal with a generational succession in a new Middle East and North Africa region forever changed by the pro-democracy uprisings that began in December 2010.
In an article entitled Next up in the Middle East mess? Saudi Arabia’s succession fight
, published in The Washington Post
on Tuesday, Karen Elliott House writes that the elderly sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, who have ruled sequentially since his death in 1953, are approaching the end of the line.
The author notes that King Abdullah is nearly 90 years old and is in failing health and Crown Prince Salman is 76.
The Saudi royal family can continue to pass the monarchy to the remaining brothers and half-brothers, but even the youngest of those is already in his late 60s, Ms. House pointed out.
She noted that no Saudi prince is likely to have the insight and energy -- or even the time -- to steer the country in an era of reform or to solve the kingdom’s problems, such as poor education, high unemployment, a corrupt bureaucracy, and a crippled economy, or to deal with an increasingly young and frustrated society.
External challenges, including the turmoil in the Middle East and a fraying alliance with the United States, must also be added to these domestic woes, Ms. House wrote.
She stated that the three historic pillars of Saudi stability - oil, Wahhabi muftis, and the royal family -- are cracking.
The massive revenue the country has obtained from oil for decades could be reduced by peak production and the sharp rise in domestic energy consumption.
The extremist Wahhabi muftis, who have granted legitimacy to the House of Saud, are also increasingly divided and losing credibility in the eyes of the general public.
In addition, the Saudi royal family is threatened by division as time has finally forced it to address the issue of generational succession.
Ms. House added that sooner or later the Saudi crown will be passed to the new generation, which entails opportunity as well as risk.
The opportunity in theory is that a new-generation royal -- educated, more open-minded and above all more energetic -- could begin to confront Saudi Arabia’s various problems by loosening up political and economic controls and increasing the competence of the government in order to assuage the people’s frustrations.
However, the risk is that the divided Saudi royal family will splinter.
The leadership in Saudi Arabia is unlike that of any other monarchy. It is a system where princes often marry multiple wives and thus produce dozens of progeny each -- now adding up to nearly 7,000 princes.
Saudi Arabia these days is all too reminiscent of the dying decade of the Soviet Union, during which one weak leader succeeded another, she wrote.
Ms. House said that given how large and divided the royal family has become over the decades, how a new-generation monarch will be selected is still an important question that remains unanswered.
Many Saudis fear that the Allegiance Council, which King Abdullah established in 2006 in the hope of a smooth generational succession, will die with the monarch’s death.
Saudi society now bears little similarity to the passive masses of a decade ago.
Saudis now know about life inside their kingdom and in the wider world, and they dislike the inequalities they see.
Sixty percent of Saudis are under 20 years old. Forty percent of Saudis live in poverty; 70 percent can’t afford to own a home; and 90 percent of workers in the private sector are foreigners
Meanwhile, unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds is nearly 40 percent.
Saudi men won’t take the lower-skilled jobs for which they are qualified, and even well-educated Saudi women are not allowed to take jobs for which they are qualified.