Saudi Arabia faces long-term questions over political leadership

On the surface, the political transition in Saudi Arabia following the death of the much-revered King Abdullah has proceeded without a hitch. Salman, a half-brother of the former king, is the new ruler, while the recently named deputy, Crown Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of Saudi Arabia’s founder, has moved up in line to the throne.

But in Riyadh, as elsewhere, appearances can be deceiving. Saudi Arabia faces long-term questions over political leadership and myriad immediate challenges. The succession issue has been shelved, not solved. King Salman is 79 and in poor health; Muqrin is 69. Ironically, given Saudi contempt for “godless communism”, the situation there is reminiscent of nothing so much as the gerontocracy that was the Soviet Union in the 1980s. And while the appointment of a next generation deputy crown prince is significant, competition among individuals, factions, and families over who will dominate the pivotal oil-rich country will be unavoidable.

The jockeying for political primacy will start sooner than many appreciate. But the most pressing challenge for the new collective leadership — one that will be hamstrung by the existence of strong political fiefdoms and a relatively weak centre — is how to deal with a strategic environment that has deteriorated markedly from the Saudi vantage point.

The latest blow is Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour to the south, where Iran — Saudi Arabia’s principal rival for influence — has the upper hand. Yemen is already a staging ground for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; on Thursday, the president resigned after the capital was brought to a halt by rebels. Things will go downhill further without a functioning government. It is only a matter of time before some of these attacks target the kingdom.

Things look as bad, or even worse, to the north and west. Iraq is fighting for its life against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), but even if it survives, the result will be a weak and divided country that Iran and Iraq’s Shia majority dominate. The Syrian civil war has turned that country into yet another failed state, where the majority Sunni population finds itself under attack both from Iran-backed government forces as well as from various radical Islamist groups. Jordan, arguably Saudi Arabia’s closest partner in the region, has its hands full with millions of refugees that have crossed its borders, while Bahrain’s minority Sunni regime is having difficulty maintaining order among its Shia majority population.

Then of course there is Iran itself. Saudi officials are understandably worried about the country’s nuclear programme, and also have a perpetual concern about Iran’s ability to stir up trouble among the kingdom’s own Shia minority of some 3m people, many of whom live in the oil-rich eastern province.

It is not hard to imagine the nightmares of encirclement that haunt Saudi officials. The danger is not simply terrorist attacks in the classic sense, although that threat is significant, particularly if they demonstrate the regime’s inability to provide security to pilgrims making the journey to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Rather, there is the likelihood that Isis, which seeks to bring about a modern day caliphate, will try to gain control of the country that is home to Islam’s two most important holy sites. The big risk for Saudi Arabia stems from the appeal of the group’s ideas to a population that is young, poorly educated and underemployed. The internet, more than bombs, could be the government’s undoing, especially as resentment of the kingdom’s thousands of cosseted princes is both broad and deep.

The good news for the new king is that Saudi Arabia is still the world’s largest producer of oil, and that its cash reserves are as impressive as its energy bounty. But muddling through what could be years of relatively low oil prices against the backdrop of a restive population and a chaotic and dangerous neighbourhood will require a leadership both united and capable. Not just Saudis, but many others have a stake in this being the case.