Anyone hoping for reform in Saudi Arabia was relieved with the death of Crown Prince Nayef last week. Much more conservative than his brother, King Abdullah, Crown Prince Nayef was known for his strong counter-terrorism policies as well as his opposition to women's rights to vote, drive, or integrate with men.
However, the larger issue that his death raises is the reality that many of the most senior Saudi royals are elderly. With each death in Saudi Arabia, more serious questions arise about the future succession, at a time when the country needs solid leadership.
Crown Prince Nayef is the second crown prince to die in the last eight months. In addition, King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman are both elderly and unwell. As a result, the traditional line of succession, from brother to brother of the seven sons of King Abdulaziz, will soon terminate, leaving the leadership of Saudi Arabia in an uncertain position. The pool of princes that are suitable for the future rule is small. Some say there are as few as 13 potential successors from the thousands of possibilities.. They are also not young; many are already in 50s or older.
This newest appointment of Crown Prince Salman has already ruffled feathers amongst the senior princes. One of the high-ranking members of the Allegiance Council, Prince Talal Bin Abdul-Aziz claimed that the council was not consulted about Crown Prince Salman’s appointment. The Council has also been accused of not joining the 21st century or allowing wider participation of the royal family, leaving it to a privileged few instead.
Family in-fighting and power struggles as the various princes try to maintain their grasp over sections of the government cause tension. They, like the general Saudi population, know that time is not on the side of the King or Crown Prince and want to be ready to get their share when the time comes. In addition, ministries tend to be passed on from father to sons, so are often run like governments within governments leading to struggles for control.
However, there is more than the issue of succession to tackle in Saudi. While the rest of the Arab world has had their uprisings, Saudi has managed to mostly avoid the unrest by quietly paying off their citizens with generous unemployment benefits for nearly 900,000 Saudis as well as increased government wages. Funding for education was drastically increased and the number of Saudi students studying abroad is higher than ever.
But the cost of this peace is far from sustainable. Nearly all of the Saudi economy is based on oil revenues and therefore the price of oil must be maintained and raised in order to continue the massive government handouts that buy the obedience of Saudi subjects. A Saudi asset management firm says that the price of oil must be at least $75 per barrel to maintain such spending, a figure that rises quickly to over $100 by 2017 and in just over a decade to $320. This is clearly an impossible figure to maintain for an extended period.
Saudi Arabia is very good at ignoring problems, however, these issues are appearing thick and fast. The question remains, will anyone survive long enough to do anything about them.