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Two months into the reign of Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, it is still too early to predict the direction in which King Abdullah intends to steer the world’s largest oil-producing country. The kingdom is entering a prolonged transition period, not unlike that of the Soviet Union following the death of its president Leonid Brezhnev in 1982. Brezhnev’s two elderly successors lasted only a short while and were eventually followed by the younger Mikhail Gorbachev, who promptly sent the Soviet Union into oblivion. Whether a similar chain of events occurs in Saudi Arabia will depend partly on chance and partly on the ability of King Abdullah to guide his country and the region through a sustained period of reform.

We have heard much about Saudi Arabia’s fear of civil war in neighbouring Iraq. What the kingdom intends to do about it is less clear. One clue can be found in King Abdullah’s relations with the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria. The feckless way in which Mr Assad handled events leading up to and following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in Beirut last February angered and disappointed the king. But anger may not be enough to overcome the Saudis’ instinct to join Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, in trying to rescue Mr Assad’s regime under the banner of preserving the Arab nationalist axis – in other words, maintaining the status quo.

Given Saudi Arabia’s aversion to uncertainty, it may be too much for King Abdullah to stand by and watch Mr Assad and his relatives succumb to mounting pressure to leave Damascus.

Yet the monarch might also come to see regime change in Syria as a welcome, if risky, response to the demands of the region’s silent majority for accountable government. Given Syria’s operational role in supporting the insurgency in Iraq, an added benefit might be the reduction of attacks in Iraq and, possibly, the emergence of a more stable system there. Constitutionally accountable governments in Syria and Iraq could provide the basis for updating Riyadh’s social contract with Saudi citizens, who would no longer be treated as subjects, leading eventually to a constitutional al-Saud monarchy. As changes inevitably unfold in the region, the question is whether
King Abdullah has the skill and the will to steer the kingdom beyond
the absolute monarchy that it is today.

Within his borders, King Abdullah will carry forward the dramatic modernisation set in motion by his half-brother Fahd, who died last July. But, rather than concentrate on the “outer”, or more obvious, forms of modernity, such as infrastructure, there are indications that King Abdullah is shifting the focus to internal modernisation, such as the introduction of management systems, corporate and government accountability, curriculum reform in the schools and universities to emphasise problem-solving skills, and sciences and languages instead of religious indoctrination. Only when the 17m indigenous Saudis, more than half of whom are under the age of 20, learn to “think modern” can they begin to participate in political life under a future constitutional monarchy. King Abdullah needs reform not only to propel the country forward but to prevent it from sliding backwards into the grasp of conservative religious clerics and their extremist cohorts within and outside the kingdom.

One unavoidable problem facing the leadership is the fact they are all ageing. The new king and Crown Prince Sultan are both over 80 (precise birth dates are elusive in the House of Saud). The “younger” brothers – including Prince Mitaab, the long-time minister of municipalities and eldest of the politically active brothers, Prince Nayef, the hard-line minister of interior, and Prince Salman, the more reformist Riyadh governor and head of the Family Council – are all well over 70. The questions of who ascends, if any among these, and when an able prince from the next generation would become crown prince are crucial decisions over which the present monarch will have significant influence.

The challenge for the House of Saud is to come up with a satisfactory way of choosing a second-generation leader who can command the loyalty of his vast family and appeal to coming generations of Saudis.

King Abdullah’s era will be judged by how he navigates the currentpolitical maelstrom of the region, how forcefully he encourages domestic reform and how skilfully he lays the groundwork for the eventual transition to a ruler from the next generation of Saudi princes.

The writer is a senior associate member of St Antony’s College, Oxford; he prepared a study on the future of Saudi Arabia for the US defence department’s office of net assessment

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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