Saudi Arabia: a troubled monarchy

House of Saud faces change, crucial for its future

25 November, 17:12

(ANSAmed) - ROME - A century has passed since Abdulaziz bin Saud fought on the Arab peninsula to found his kingdom, and his sons are still firmly in charge in Saudi Arabia, guaranteeing stability for the governors of the largest oil producer in the world, and for their American allies. But in a period of significant change and turmoil, from North Africa to the Gulf, this stability now seems under threat and the royal family must prepare to change the system of succession, giving over command to a younger generation that will carry out the reforms that are crucial for the country's future. Last month's death of the octogenarian crown prince, Sultan, and Defence Minister was no shock: Interior Minister Nayef was appointed new crown prince. Nayef also took care of current affairs during periods of sickness of Sultan and king Abdullah, who is 87 years old. All these figures are sons of Ibn Saud and so far power has always been transferred from one to the other. But the 19 sons of the patriarch who are still alive are old - the youngest, Muqrin, is 68 - and it is likely that the periods between successions will be shorter and shorter. In a country where princes-Ministers stay in power for decades, the time is near to make place for the second generation, or even the third: this will make a choice between the various branches of the huge royal family necessary. Therefore king Abdullah has created a family council in 2006, in which all lines of the family are represented. The council is in charge of advising rulers on their successors, and has the possibility of 'retiring' a monarch is he is no longer able to perform his role. The late Sultan has led the Defence Ministry since 1962. His son Khaled, who commanded the Saudi forces in 1991 during the first Gulf war, was his vice. But Sultan's position was taken over by the governor of Riyadh, Salman, who is also favourite to become the second in succession to the throne. Salman is the brother of Nayef, and both are member of the powerful Sudairi clan, the sons Ibn Saud had with his favourite wife, Hassa. Nayef is 78 years old, Salman is two or three years younger: a country in which 60% of the population is younger than 30 is in the hands of rulers who are anchored to the past rather than looking at the future. But the future is already here.

So far the Arab Spring has only touched Saudi Arabia, strictly ruled by Nayef, who has been leading the Interior Ministry since 1975 and has been accused by his opponents of filling the country's prisons with dissidents and Shiites. Moreover, in April this year the king clamped down on the media. But the kingdom does have its problems, despite the enormous amount of oil it is sitting on: youth unemployment is high, like in Egypt and Tunisia. King Abdullah has raised public expenditure by 130 billion USD in the coming ten years to the benefit of the young, and has also introduced timid political reforms and has opened the door somewhat to future reforms in women's rights. Looking over the border, there are concerns that Iran could take advantage of the dissent to increase its influence, forcing Saudi Arabia to a military intervention in Bahrain, where a Shiite uprising was rocking the Sunnite dynasty. The small island-State Bahrain borders with the oil-rich east of Saudi Arabia, where the kingdom's Shiite population is concentrated.

This part of the population is stepping up its protests, asking for more freedom and the end of ''confessional discrimination." (ANSAmed).

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