This post has been updated.
Saudi watchers have been talking about the transition from King Abdullah for a decade, but now that it has arrived, it’s as mysterious as ever.
The death of King Abdullah begins a period of generational change in the oil kingdom that may last for several years. Crown Prince Salman,
the nominal successor the new king, is elderly and infirm, as is the next in line, Prince Muqrin. The Saudi royal family, which has proven itself adept at survival, will be struggling in the next days and months to decide who in the next generation should be positioned for eventual power.
UPDATE (1:00 p.m., Jan. 23): King Salman took a big step in an orderly transition Friday, announcing that the next in line after Muqrin will be Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the interior minister and the Saudi official with whom the U.S. has the most trust. At 55, he is part of the next generation in the royal family. His elevation is a crucial step toward empowering a younger team of Saudi leaders.
Saudi Arabia’s opaque and often repressive political system mystifies outsiders, especially at times like this, when the leadership of the kingdom is a critical factor in the regional balance of power. Saudi Arabia is the heart, and the pocketbook, of the Sunni Arab world. A leadership vacuum in Riyadh echoes from Yemen to Syria, and all the places in between.
Abdullah’s death comes as Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni world it leads, are vexed as never before by the power of Iran and its Shiite Muslim proxies. Iran’s allies control four key Arab capitals: Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sanaa. The Saudis have raged against Iranian power, and tried to finance covert operations to counter it, but they have failed everywhere they have tried. Many in the kingdom blame the United States for these reversals, but they should be more self-critical: This has fundamentally been a failure of Sunni, and especially Saudi, leadership.
Abdullah was a reticent monarch, with none of the flamboyant outreach of his predecessor, King Fahd. But within the kingdom, he was deeply respected. He was seen by many Saudi women as their secret champion in a society that rigidly suppresses the rights of women. He was also seen as a modest and pious man who lived by Muslim ideals better than many of his predecessors. He didn’t reform Saudi Arabia, but he was able to maintain a measure of stability.
The nightmare for moderate Saudis is that the extremists of the Islamic State have a significant following among young Saudis, say analysts who follow the Arabic Twitter and Facebook platforms. Young Saudis are among the world’s most active users of these social media, which indicates the pent-up desire in the kingdom for political and social involvement. Attempts to suppress this activism, in the uncertainty of the leadership transition, could be very dangerous.
The next generation of Saudi leaders, symbolized for American officials by Prince Mohammad, is talented and modern. But the paradox of Saudi Arabia is that the Western-facing kingdom has depended for its legitimacy on a pact with conservative Muslim religious leaders. Frightened now by the power of the Islamic State’s extremism, Saudi leaders may be tempted to repeat that bargain — and govern through the repressive power of the Muslim conservatives.
Many Western analysts believe that doubling down now on Muslim conservatism would be a mistake. But decades have shown that the West’s ability to influence the royal family in moments like this is limited, to put it mildly. With Abdullah’s death, Saudi Arabia’s princes will be thinking about the survival of the House of Saud. The balance of power in the Middle East will be shaped by their decisions. But in Saudi Arabia, as in most places, politics is local.