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Saudi Arabia's moribund monarchy

Though only a limited reform, and one that seems to have been quickly dispatched, the Allegiance Institute remains an important milestone. It was a tacit acknowledgment that despite the King's power he does not rule alone.

Joshua Jacobs
24 June 2012

With the passing of Crown Prince Nayef, Saudi Arabia has ushered in its third Crown Prince and heir to the throne in less than a year. The long ailing 78 year old ascended to the throne after the death of his 80 year old brother Prince Sultan late last December. The mantle passed in accordance with precedent, to his full brother Prince Salman, the then current Defence Minister. Prince Salman who will turn 77 this year is plagued by a host of health problems including the same cardiac risks that claimed the life of his brother and father, not to mention a debilitating stroke he suffered two years ago. The process of Saudi succession increasingly looks like a funerary procession, with one man going to his grave after the other.

Standing atop all of this is the venerable King Abdullah who at age 87 is stricken with many of the health problems one would expect of a man clawing his way towards a century on this earth. Considered by many to have been more or less out of commission during the most chaotic days of the Arab Spring -  indeed he was away on a medical junket for part of it - there are few who have faith that the King can last much longer.

The tradition and precedent of passing authority to the next competent and eldest brother has left the upper echelons of the al-Saud and consequently the seats of power in the Saudi monarchy looking more like a mausoleum than a government. Though Prince Salman has ascended to his brother’s position there was a time not that long ago when some were beginning to think that the process of geriatric succession itself was going to be reformed. King Abdullah began his reign by marking himself as a moderate reformer, one of the acts that attracted significant attention was the creation of the Allegiance Council.

Created specifically to avoid the problems that arose in the 1990's when King Fahd was incapacitated by strokes and dementia, the Kingdom was run in the shadows by then Crown Prince Abdullah who was forced to contend with his brothers due to his lack of royal fiat. Under the new guidelines, the King was to bring three candidates forward to a council of royals made up of the sons and grandsons of King Abdulaziz. They would then select one for the position of Crown Prince, and if needed replace an incapacitated King with that candidate. This new dynamic was seen by many as an opportunity to bypass the decrepit ranks of the first generation shifting power to the grandsons of Abdulaziz who many noted were more modern and liberal in their outlook.

Unfortunately these hopes have been consistently dashed as ingrained conservatism combined with family politics have conspired to usurp the proposed role of the council. However as the House of Saud begins the process of hauling up another half dead man into the throne, it is time not only to urgently revisit some of the younger faces in the al-Saud, but to consider the prospect of real constitutional reform.

It is morbidly intriguing to watch the problems of Saudi governance pile up if only because one need only look into a grammar school textbook to identify parallels. The deficiencies of absolute monarchy have been known for centuries. It is a system that requires consistently competent and vigorous leadership from above, else the rule of one poor leader can bring the entire governing structure down.

Nor is the House of Saud ignorant of this. King Abdullah cannot possibly have forgotten how he assisted his brother then Prince Faisal overthrow King Saud due to collective familial concerns that the King was leading the country off a precipice. The al-Saud have had a combination of excellent luck, and some truly remarkable rulers over the past 70 years. But when the three men holding the top posts have a combined 251 years between them, something has gone off the rails.

While this must certainly appear to be arcane and esoteric to the point of absurdity, there are few things in global politics that are of greater importance. Saudi Arabia is the largest and most important energy node in the world, and a significant font of Arab power. If Saudi Arabia continues on its current track, it is not only possible but likely that it will face the chaos that results from the double decapitation of its leaders as both King and Crown Prince are rapidly scythed down by old age. With no substantive mechanism to overcome familial politics and place a better suited royal on the throne, there is no guarantee that a repeat of the open conflict that characterized the early 1960's will not occur, and certainly none against a vacuum of power at the top of the Saudi state.

Though only a limited reform, and one that seems to have been quickly dispatched, the Allegiance Institute remains an important milestone. It not only marked the first attempt in decades to create some sort of formalized constitutional process, even if the franchise was limited to a few dozen old men, it was also a tacit acknowledgment that despite the King's power he does not rule alone. With local elections in the rear-view mirror, the rising clamour on the Saudi street for a greater say in government, and the continued tremors of the Arab Spring, it might behove the al-Saud to seriously consider the long term implications of this last point.

Saudi Arabia is rapidly exhausting its supply of senior royals, and has made little to no provision for what will happen when they are gone. With the Arab Spring still in full swing, massive internal dilemmas simmering at home, and a global economy at stake, it is essential that the Kingdom acquire a stable and competent head to guide the ship of state. The first step towards this is solidifying a real constitutional process for selecting a new Crown Prince, and King. It is however by no means the last step. If the House of Saud has found the past decade to be disturbing, then the ensuing one augurs to be truly frightening.

A new generation is rapidly rising to adulthood, and has realized that it cannot hope for the same state-guaranteed prosperity as their parents received. With the benefits of the rentier state receding in the face of relentless demography, it seems unlikely that Saudi's will remain content to have a rotating circle of old men lording it over them. There are some signs, such as the recent local elections, that indicate that some in the royal family understand this and believe in the need for an altered course. However if the charade of propping up Crown Prince Salman in his new position is any indicator, it suggests that the al-Saud do not yet realize how imminent these problems are.

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