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Friday, January 9, 2015

The Saudi Game of Thrones

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be heading towards a transfer of power soon as its monarch, King Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz, is sick with pneumonia.

King Abdullah is 91 years old, though he looks considerably younger. He formally ascended the Saudi throne in August 2005 after King Fahd died from complications from a stroke. Abdullah has been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since 1995.

Saudi Arabia has long been one of the most powerful states in the Middle East. Its vast oil reserves have made it an influential power in the world and made its people rich. The country has embarked on extravagant and ambitious building projects and is currently in the process of constructing a building that when finished will dwarf the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Artist's rendition of the planned Kingdom Tower in Jeddah. (Wikipedia) 

Saudi Arabia is also home of two of Islam's most holy cities-Mecca and Medina. Mecca is the city where faithful Muslims must travel (if they are financially able) for their Hajj (pilgrimage), one of Islam's Five Pillars. Medina is the city where the Prophet Mohammed was buried and is second only to Mecca in its holiness. The King of Saudi Arabia is known by the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, referencing those in Mecca and Medina. 

Muslims performing the Hajj at Mecca's Al-Masjid Al-Haram (The Sacred Mosque)

The Saudi government, unfortunately, is one of the most repressive in the world. It is an absolute monarchy where strict Sharia law is the basis for legal policy in the country. Women are badly marginalized by the Saudi government's repression, perhaps most infamously when it surfaced that they are not allowed to drive. Saudis do not enjoy many of the same civil and political rights that are taken for granted in other countries. Recently, a blogger named Raif Badawi was given a sentence of flogging and imprisonment for "insulting Islam".

Saudi Arabia's monarchy is unique in that power is not handed to the son of the outgoing monarch-it passes to the next brother of the outgoing monarch instead.

The problem that could arise in this situation is not with Abdullah, but with his successors. 
Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is next in line to Abdullah. He is 79 years old and there are speculations that he is suffering from Alzheimer's. 

If Salman does not become the next king, the next option that's been brought up is Muqrin, the former director of Saudi intelligence from 2005 to 2012. He is relatively young by Saudi monarchy standards at 69. His problem is his lineage-he was born from a Yemeni woman and could be considered unfit for the throne since she was, at a certain point in time, a servant to the Saudi royal family. 

The Saud royal family has dozens of brothers to vie for the throne, and if problems arise with the looming transfer of power, the kingdom could collapse in on itself. 

Even if the transition away from King Abdullah goes smoothly, the large amount of brothers that are close to the throne could create problems for Saudi Arabia's stability, as even though the monarchy is repressive, it is a uniting force and has been for many decades. Tribalism, which is largely kept under wraps by the current government, could emerge as a force to destroy what unity exists in Saudi Arabia. 

This does not mean Saudi Arabia's going to descend into anarchy as soon as King Abdullah dies, nor does it mean that western-style democracy is right around the corner. The United Arab Emirates operates smoothly despite stark tribal differences by way of a decentralized and autonomy-rich system where tribal heads exercise substantial power rather than the national government. The government in Riyadh was able to quickly and decisively stop protests from developing in the country while the Arab Spring spread like wildfire to other Middle Eastern countries. 

The best avenue for Saudi Arabia to ensure a smooth transfer of power is likely to slowly move more power to the Consultative Assembly, increase female representation and work towards gender equality, and introduce reforms to the strict code of Sharia law the country passes. The country would also benefit from extensive economic reform, as its planned economy, currently dominated by oil, will last much longer if it is diversified and expanded through the market and different industries. 

The strict policy against Islamism in Saudi Arabia is odd, considering the country's extensive use of Sharia law to govern. Religious conservatism is likely going to continue to play a role in Saudi Arabia in the years to come even if the government does change for the future-and this may not be a bad thing for the Saudi people, who are quite religious, but the religious police that work in Saudi Arabia are a liability and a problem, and some degree of separation between religious and state affairs may open Saudi Arabia up culturally. 

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