Saudi’s quiet political revolution: How the kingdom saved itself from disaster

John Hulsman
Look for the Obama administration to redouble its efforts to court King Salman (Source: Getty)
“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain
While all eyes are understandably on the climax of the most fascinating British election in a generation, an equally important political outcome has quietly been reached in far-away Arabia. There, the Saudi royal family – the House of Saud – has managed what until recently seemed an impossibility to many western observers; it has finally put a long-term succession plan in place without undermining its continued rule. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia seems to be more durable than its many doom-mongers imagined.
There are certainly long-term and unsolved problems underlying general doubts about Riyadh’s continued viability. Saudi Arabia is politically brittle, an absolute monarchy with few mechanisms for diluting dissent. Further, the Sunni majority country has a tetchy relationship with its minority Shia population, a particularly perilous state of affairs given the latter group primarily inhabits Saudi’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s oil is produced.
For years, in whispered consultations at the edges of meetings, I have heard numerous stories exhibiting fear at the seeming fragility of the Saudi state. This unspoken dread about the stability of the world’s most important oil producer amounted to a thought so horrendous that – even though widely shared by western analysts – it was best not openly discussed.
Such trepidations are based primarily on the way kings have been chosen in Saudi Arabia, a vital factor given the country is an absolute monarchy. Since 1953, the Saudi crown has passed between the sons of the founder of the country King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud. The key structural problem with this system for choosing kings – son-to-son rather than father-to-son, as is the general case in European monarchies – is that it becomes harder to keep up with generational changes; the world moves on even as the monarchy does not.
The key question regarding the long-term stability of the House of Saud has become what happens when the ruling family finally makes the precarious leap to the grandsons of the founder of the monarchy. Would this be managed in a smooth and consensual way, or would it breed open divisions within the very large royal family, schisms that could undermine the monarchy itself?
Last week, with the changes in the succession announced by King Salman, the House of Saud mastered the elephant in the room. A dynastic process seems well in place to get to the grandsons of King Abdul-Aziz. If this proves to be as effortless as it now seems, it amounts to a huge analytical hinge point, forcing a fundamental rethink about Saudi Arabia’s prospects. The conclusion must now be that the resilience (to employ the trendy foreign policy term of the moment) of the royal family is far greater than analysts had thought.
Beyond even this general – and vital – analytical point, the West must be very pleased with the specifics of the King’s announcement. If you asked a Saudi-watcher in Washington which of the hundreds of grandsons of King Abdul-Aziz they would most like to first sit on the throne, King Salman’s nephew Mohammed bin Nayef would have won in a landslide. Nayef – who has just been named the new Crown Prince – is well-known and well-regarded in the West, where he has a sterling reputation as a tough and able counter-terrorism tsar, working hand-in-glove with America to beat back al-Qaeda following 9/11. Presently serving as interior minister, he is easily Washington’s favourite among the coming generation of Saudi royals.
Second, from a western point of view, the fact that the new foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, was until last week the Saudi ambassador to the United States will be taken as a clear signal that – for all the hiccups in the Saudi-American relationship – Riyadh is clearly signalling its determination to keep the tie (and that with the West in general) at the forefront of its foreign policy strategy in the coming years.
For all these reasons, look for the Obama administration – whatever happens over the Iranian nuclear deal – to redouble its efforts to court King Salman, now that America is firmly convinced that the Saudi monarchy has easily weathered its feared succession storm. For in a region with five established and relatively stable powers (Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia), America can more safely transform its role to one of an off-shore balancer, which is what the White House has dreamed about for years. The successful Saudi reshuffle has barely made the papers in the West; it is no less important for that.

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