King Abdullah is nearly 90 and ailing. Crown Prince Salman is 76. The royal family can continue to pass the monarchy to remaining brothers and half-brothers, but even the youngest of those is already in his late 60s. None is likely to have the acumen and energy — or even the time — to usher in an era of reform to solve the kingdom’s mounting problems: poor education, high unemployment, a corrupt bureaucracy, a sclerotic economy and an increasingly young and frustrated society. These domestic challenges are compounded by external ones including Middle East turmoil, the nuclear ambition of the radical regime in Iran and a fraying alliance with the United States.
The three historic pillars of Saudi stability are cracking. Massive oil revenue, which has bought public passivity, is threatened by peaked production and sharply increased domestic energy consumption. A supportive Wahhabi Islamic establishment that bestowed legitimacy on the House of Saud is increasingly fractious and is losing public credibility. And now, the royal family is in danger of division as it is forced to confront generational succession.
Whether by the choice of the royal family sooner, or by the will of Allah a bit later, the crown is going to pass to the new generation. This entails risk as well as opportunity.
The opportunity is obvious. In theory at least, a new-generation royal — educated, more open-minded and above all more energetic — could begin to tackle the country’s manifold problems by relaxing political and economic controls and by providing more efficient and accountable government to relieve the frustrations of a sullen populace.
Given the stakes involved, however, the risk is that the diffuse and divided royal family will dither or, worse yet, splinter. The issue is not merely which new prince would wear the crown, but the fear among the royals that his branch of the family would pass it on to its sons and grandsons in perpetuity, precluding other branches from ever ruling again.
For nearly 60 years, the crown has passed by family consensus from one brother to the next, occasionally skipping one deemed incapable or unsuitable for leadership, but otherwise following the tradition of seniority. Whoever reigned might favor his sons with particularly plum jobs, but he understood that the crown would go next not to his sons but to his brothers. It is a system unlike that of any other monarchy. But in a kingdom where princes often marry multiple wives and thus produce dozens of progeny each — now adding up to nearly 7,000 princes — it is a system that has largely worked.