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Saudi Arabia’s Succession Line Is Set, but the Nation’s Path Remains Uncertain

Saudi Arabia’s Succession Line Is Set, but the Nation’s Path Remains Uncertain thumbnail

Saudi Arabia’s new king moved with unprecedented swiftness on Friday to appoint not only the heir to his throne but the heir to his heir as well.

If all proceeds according to plan — as most Saudis and some analysts assume it will — the chain of succession dictated by King Salman after the death of his half brother Abdullah lays out who will be the head of state of one of the Arab world’s richest and most influential nations through the middle of this century.

Such a long-term road map represented a show of confidence in the national project, especially in an era when longtime Arab leaders have been tossed out by popular revolts and neighboring states like Iraq, Yemen and Syria are breaking apart.

But analysts who study Saudi Arabia say that despite the ruling family’s public display of unity and confidence, the kingdom faces profound internal pressures that its leaders have in many ways failed to address.

For decades, members of the ruling family, supported by the country’s staunchly conservative religious establishment, have maintained power through a combination of social control and state generosity, which has been underwritten by the vast revenues Saudi Arabia earns as the world’s largest exporter of crude oil.


While the Saudi model still mostly holds, generational shifts have begun to chip away at its coherence.

Clerics still hold power and the religious police still patrol public spaces, but some religious dictates go unheeded. The kingdom recently let investors buy shares in a national bank in a multibillion-dollar initial public offering, despite statements from top clerics that buying shares was forbidden on religious grounds.

And then there was condemnation of Twitter by Saudi’s Grand Mufti as a “council of clowns,” which continues to be flouted daily by millions of Saudis, including King Salman, who tweeted to his more than one million followers on Friday that he had asked God to make him succeed in serving his people.

The state has also lagged in integrating its large and not particularly well-educated youth population into the economy. A few hundred young men have given up on the kingdom and joined the jihadists of the Islamic State. Many others remain at home, either unemployed or underemployed.

But the biggest challenge the country faces may be one at least partly of its own making: the decline in the oil revenues that form the economic foundation of the state. As the dominant producer in OPEC, Saudi Arabia’s decisions on production levels have enormous influence on world oil markets, and it has maintained fairly high output in recent months despite an oversupplied market, helping to seriously depress prices.

Saudi leaders use their oil income not only to influence regional politics, but to pacify their own people. After the popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring toppled or threatened several Saudi allies in the region, Saudi Arabia responded by bankrolling its friends abroad and spending lavishly on domestic projects.

“Things are always sustainable in Saudi when they can afford to keep paying,” said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics.

But the drop in oil prices has resulted in a $38.6 billion deficit in Saudi Arabia’s budget for 2015. That could limit the country’s ability to maneuver, but only if oil prices remain low for an extended period. The International Monetary Fund estimated Saudi Arabia’s reserves at $750 billion, which can buy it time to wait for oil prices to go back up.

“They have a cushion that they can live on for another decade or so, but they may not be able to afford it if the oil price stays low,” Mr. Hertog said.

Analysts said they did not expect Salman to pursue policies significantly different from those of his predecessor, King Abdullah. His only immediate initiative was clarifying who would succeed him. The issue was a pressing one because the new monarch is thought to be 79 years old, and he is said to be showing his age.

The appointment of successors appeared to resolve a thorny generational issue. So far, every king of Saudi Arabia since the death in 1953 of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz, has been one of his dozens of sons, with Salman the fifth to reign.

Under the royal decrees issued Friday, one more half brother — Muqrin, the youngest of Abdulaziz’s sons deemed fit to rule — was named crown prince and next in line for the throne. After him will come the country’s powerful interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was named deputy crown prince on Friday; he is the first heir to the throne from among Abdulaziz’s grandsons.

The most important ministries in the Saudi government are held by members of the royal family, and Salman did not announce any changes to the roster, other than to appoint his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman to replace him as defense minister and to lead the royal court. Longtime officials kept their posts, including Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who remains the national security council adviser.

Frederic Wehrey, who studies Saudi Arabia for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the choice of Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister who is a leader in the Saudi fight against Islamic militants, suggested that relations with the United States would remain strong.

“The centerpiece of Saudi-U.S. cooperation has always been on the intelligence level, and Mohammed bin Nayef has been at the center of that,” he said.

The new Saudi head of state is rumored in some quarters to be senile, but similar rumors swirled about Abdullah and he was still hailed as a heroic statesman around the world.

How much the Saudi ruling family will change to address the country’s challenges remains an open question. Some hailed King Abdullah as a reformer, noting that he defied the religious establishment to push for more women in the workplace and appointed 30 women to a royal advisory council.

“From an American perspective, it may look feeble, but it is meaningful in the context of this society,” said Joseph Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

Others note that Saudi women still cannot drive and dissidents are jailed and flogged for expressing views seen as commonplace elsewhere.

Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that domestic issues were less worrisome for the Saudi leadership than were the spreading problems in neighboring states. The collapse of Yemen’s government has provided an opportunity to Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State is continuing to entice recruits to Iraq and Syria.

“It is one thing to have one bit of trouble on the border,” Mr. Henderson said. “But when you have several bits of trouble on the border, that is a bigger deal.”

NY Times

5 Comments on "Saudi Arabia’s Succession Line Is Set, but the Nation’s Path Remains Uncertain"

  1. Plantagenet on Fri, 23rd Jan 2015 8:21 pm 

    None of the ninnies in the House of Saud seem to understand “peak oil.”

    They wouldn’t be selling precious Saudi crude oil at $45/bbl if they had a clue how soon Saudi oil production will peak and then go into inexorable decline.

  2. GregT on Fri, 23rd Jan 2015 9:08 pm 

    Of course if the Saudis cut production by 40% they could sell the remaining oil for twice as much, if it wasn’t for the oil glut.

  3. Tom on Fri, 23rd Jan 2015 9:42 pm 

    After Friday services entertainment for the Saudi masses – Off With the Heads. Wonder where the Saudi funded ISIS guys came up with the idea?

  4. Davy on Sat, 24th Jan 2015 5:46 am 

    Planter is there anyone here that would not have their cake AND eat it. There are few if any nations on the planet that have the luxury of having their oil like having gold in the vault. The world is at limits of growth diminishing returns in carrying capacity overshoot. All nations are struggling to maintain the necessary growth to keep their rusty ships going in stormy waters. It is the nature of the growth based system we created at or approaching limits of growth and carrying capacity.

    There is little stocking up and mostly maximum production per the economics. We are in a maximization of shareholders value mentality in the pursuit of short term gains coupled with a struggling economic growth environment. Man, that’s a bitch, having a system based on maximization of profit with that systems productive assets breaking down. Currently this maximum efficiency and production is not even giving us growth. I don’t care about corn porn growth. It is not real. It does not represent actual increase in “real value” type growth. We can call cancer growth is it good growth? Cancerous modern growth is malinvestment with no long term value especially considering the realities of the end of the oil age. All that investment in oil fueled devises and infrastructure that will soon be silent and useless.

    The KSA is pissing away high value oil in a struggle to maintain their social structure. Think of all the other countries across the earth with a high quality resource being produced at unsustainable and unhealthy rates. Look at the US and Brazils AG industries and the rape and pillage of the soils and water resources from their maximization of AG production for export. It is the nature of modern man and the growth based system that high quality energy is made swiftly and efficiently into low order energy for the hyper-entropic pursuit of growth. This at the expense of value, resilience, and sustainability.

    I think it was the last KSA monarch that wanted to save some oil for the next generation. He didn’t realize what he was saying in his marbled palace. There is no saving anything there is only the pillage of resources to support a massive population overshoot and culturally conditioned overconsumption by humans in a destroyed ecosystem.

    In one sense it is probably smart to go ahead and rape and pillage the remaining resources because there is a limited tomorrow for BAU. All these modern man resources are going to have little use in a post BAU with greatly reduced energy intensity and complexity. We will return to the original renewables of the pre nineteenth century. This will be a hybrid affair most likely because of salvage of the ruins of BAU with a return to the only viable option of a pre-modern man economy. In the meantime it is yeast in a petri dish everywhere you look from oceans to oil resources.

  5. bobinget on Sat, 24th Jan 2015 9:36 am 

    Again, we thank Davy’s insight.

    Week-end oil war up-dates;

    This one, about Libya, is hot news and about money not boring old refugees or dead villagers;

    Due to imminent reprisal attacks, I’m shortening
    time for Saudi death throes from eleven months to six. WHEN this happens, shortonoil will get his/her
    wish. Oil will indeed become unaffordable for all but the fab 1%.Obviously, just as oil guys can’t drill at $45 crude no economy can operate under a $250
    Barrel oil curse.
    Stock markets, oil included, will crash after a short lived euphoria of energy buying.

    This won’t be the end. Depending on the severity, duration, of Saudi, Libyan, Sudanese, Venezuelan, Nigerian, Iraqi, Iranian destruction—–
    WE will find solutions just as our Cuban sisters and brothers did post Soviet collapse.

    WE can only pray this coming oil shock won’t harm US military operations.
    Because of the effects of Global Warming, 2016 oil shocks the US, will need to draw Canada closer. For this, we need our military.

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