The World

Saudi Arabia’s Succession Time Bomb

Saudi King Abdullah with his brother and designated successor, Prince Salman.

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud reassured the country’s Cabinet about the health of King Abdullah, who has been hospitalized for almost a week and diagnosed with pneumonia, but rumors that the 90-year-old king is on his deathbed are still swirling online.

Rumors of Abdullah’s death have been greatly exaggerated before, and I know nothing more than that he is old and ill, but one thing is certain: Saudi Arabia is an increasingly creaky gerontocracy.

Since the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, died in 1953, the country has been ruled by five of his sons in roughly descending age order. There were quite a few options available: Abdulaziz, who cemented alliances with tribal leaders by marrying their daughters, fathered 45 sons by at least 22 wives as well as an unknown number of daughters.

But the first generation of sons is getting up there in years. Salman, who is next in line for the throne and is thought to be Abdulaziz’s 25th son, is 79. In May, Abdullah took the unprecedented step of naming his youngest brother, Prince Muqrin, as deputy heir, making him second in line for the throne. The choice, which leapfrogged some older brothers, reportedly prompted some grumbling among palace insiders over the fact that Muqrin’s mother was a Yemeni concubine who was never formally married to Abdulaziz. But he’s a close adviser to Abdullah, has diplomatic experience, and at 69, is a spring chicken by House of Saud standards.

Sooner or later, of course, the crown will have to move to the next generation. At that point, things may get a little dicey. Under Saudi succession law, the king has to be a male descendant of Abdulaziz, but beyond that, the incumbent king has wide latitude to determine his successor. Given that many of the brothers took after Dad or even exceeded him—King Saud, the second king, had 53 sons—there are now thousands of these descendants, many of whom have senior government positions, and the potential for palace intrigue is high.

In the meantime, whoever sits on the throne will have his hands full, as the coming years have the potential to be among the most transformative in the nation’s history. The country’s longtime dominance of global oil markets is being challenged by new projects in Africa, the United States, and the Arctic, and the government is now pursuing a risky strategy of keeping oil prices low to discourage new exploration and preserve its market share. (This has the added benefit of making life miserable for petrostates Russia and Iran, opponents of Saudi Arabia in the proxy war over Syria, which has those governments smelling a Washington-Riyadh conspiracy.) 

Saudi Arabia’s traditionally rock-solid relationship with the United States has also been tested by disagreements over Egypt, Syria, and the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. The Saudis, skeptical that their Iranian rivals will adhere to a nuclear deal and wary of the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian rapproachment, have dropped vague hints about pursuing a nuclear program of their own.

There’s more: Saudi Arabia avoided the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, for the most part, though the authorities have been cracking down hard on the slightest hints of political organizing among the country’s Shiite minority. There are also growing fears that Saudi Arabia, one of the leading backers of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, could become a target of that rebellion’s unwelcome offshoot, ISIS. Just Monday, three Saudi border guards were killed by militants on the Iraqi border. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but one analyst told Reuters that it was likely “the first attack by Islamic State itself against Saudi Arabia and is a clear message after Saudi Arabia entered the international coalition against it.”

Salman is thought of as a conservative, which is saying something in Saudi Arabia, and Muqrin is an Abdullah loyalist, so neither man is likely to rock the boat too much when it comes to domestic reforms if they take the throne, particularly when it comes to the kingdom’s notoriously repressive gender laws. Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia instituted some tentative reforms, such as allowing women to work in a greater number of jobs, including retail positions, and vote and run in municipal elections.  But as demonstrated by the news last week that two women arrested for driving would be tried in a special terrorism court, change only goes so far. Saudi Arabia is the only country on Earth where women are prohibited from driving.

It remains to be seen whether Saudis—both women and men—will continue to put up with the glacial pace of political reform. And whether a monarchy, facing unprecedented challenges from abroad and uncertain about its own plans and leadership for the future, will continue to be able to keep the situation under control. Once the torch is finally passed to a new generation, things will get much more uncertain.