The royal rulers of Saudi Arabia have managed to escape with scarcely a scratch from the turbulence which removed their Arab colleagues in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen since December 2010 and is now visited on Syria. It was because they acted in good time to abort the embryonic protest movement – largely by pledges of handouts totaling a fabulous 30 billion Saudi Riyals ($35 billion) under a magnanimous incentives plan, combined with arrests, heavy-handed suppression and other forms of “persuasion.”
Unrest nonetheless continues to bubble underneath the surface in Saudi Arabia. It could break out in the open should the dissent evident in three classes of society come together:
1. Personal rivalries within the ruling elite;
2. The contest between ultra-conservative elements of society and would-be liberals who seek more freedoms in society and the economy, coupled with modernization and openness to Western norms;
3. The readiness of young Saudis to fight for their demands.
On the face of it, the three dissident groups do not overlap. However, mishandled by the authorities, either one could throw caution to the winds and start a major blaze that would encompass all three. Then, the world’s biggest oil exporter would finally face a major threat to its stability.
Crumbling Government Leadership
Keeping the royal succession issue smoothly under control has always been the key to the kingdom's stability. The Saudi king is absolute head of the kingdom’s legislative authority and governing executive. The system’s Achilles heel lies in its absence of an elected legislature and therefore no clear line of authority behind the king and crown prince if both happened to be prevented from performing their duties.
Although the thousands of princes have managed to keep the royal family in power up until now, the setup is looking more and more anachronistic and less and less up to coping with the contemporary challenges of the 21st century and the Arab revolt.
King Abdullah, 89, is portrayed in the Saudi press and most of the Gulf media as ruling with a high hand. During his seven years in power, he has never relinquished his seat at the head of weekly cabinet sessions, receives official foreign guests, is the arbiter of Saudi foreign policy and author of important reforms, such as the establishment of the Allegiance Council to determine the order of succession, and innovations in the education and legal systems.
His reforms sound good but not all are implemented; nor do they affect life in the kingdom. Abdullah disobeyed his own reform by slotting Interior minister Prince Nayef, 78, a conservative with no foreign policy experience and extremely poor health, into the post of second in line to the throne when Crown Prince Sultan died in October 2011. He acted without convening the Allegiance Council as several princes demanded.
The Conservatives-Progressives seesaw gains momentum
Before flying off to Switzerland for more medical tests, Prince Nayef transferred the lead of his Sudairi branch of the royal family to defense minister Prince Salman.
If Nayef turns out to be terminally ill as rumor suggests, this branch will be further weakened. Abdullah’s failure to go through with an established order of succession strengthens the royal family’s anti-Sudairi branches.
The branch exponentially gaining from this process is the one headed by Foreign Minister Prince Saud al–Faisal, 72, who has gained prominence in the past year despite rumors still unfounded that he suffers from Parkinson’s Disease.
It is obvious that King Abdullah, the linchpin which keeps royal rule on an even keel, cannot live or govern for much longer – and not just because of his advanced age. The clamor of competing princely factions for a place in the succession against the heavyweights in power is beginning to undermine the royal rulers’ ability to deal with serious domestic and foreign dilemmas and the cohesiveness of their leadership.
The perennial tussle between Saudi conservative and progressive elements is lately propelled from inside the king’s close family, especially his daughter Aalia and family. They are growing impatient for the shackles holding down social progress to be thrown off and pressing for permission for women to drive cars, enjoy expanded employment opportunities in male-dominated places and gender mixing in public places.
Is Regime/Government Change Coming to Saudi Arabia?
Conservatism has gained leverage from Nayef’s elevation to crown prince. It is spearheaded by high-ranking members of the clergy, such as Dr. Saad Bin Nasser Bin Abdual Aziz al-Shithri, member of the Council of Senior Ulema and Abd al-Muhsen Obeikan, a royal adviser who was ousted in May for publicly criticizing legal reforms and the liberalization of women’s rights at the expense of the Islamic principles of Sharia law.
These eminent clerics are just as worried by the young generation’s increasing fearlessness of religious authority. Exposed to the social media and Internet, the young are beginning to challenge the family-clan traditions which determe behavioral norms in Saudi Arabia..
Students, scared last year to respond to social media calls for protest campaigns, are becoming attracted to the novelty of protests at Saudi universities against poor study conditions, and preparing for the next stage, open criticism of the royal regime for failing to provide work opportunities for graduates and housing for young families. Unemployment in the oil kingdom is running close to 50 percent.
In the vast desert of Saudi Arabia, it is hard to imagine sparsely populated, spaced-out regions with varying degrees of exposure to Western mores, producing a single, unified protest movement capable of accomplishing regime change. Rebellion is more likely to spring up in one or two volatile regions. It would then target the local governors. Because they are either princes or royal appointees, toppling just one of these local potentates would shake up the royal family in Riyadh and place a provocative question mark over its absolute power over every aspect of national life. However any real threat to its stability would have to be supported from inside the regime.