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What does the generational shift of leadership in Saudi Arabia mean for the United States?

Question submitted by Matthew Rodrigues, from The George Washington University, August 19, 2013

Answered by: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program


Since the 1953 death of Saudi Arabia's eponymous founder, King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, the country has been ruled by his sons. There will eventually be a shift in power to the next generation, but despite—or perhaps because of—the turmoil spreading across the region, that shift does not appear imminent. Earlier this year, King Abdullah (age 90) put yet another half-brother into the line of succession, appointing Prince Muqrin (age 68) as second deputy prime minister behind Crown Prince Salman (age 77). The inevitable generational shift of leadership was postponed once more.

Still, that shift must happen at some point, and the stakes are high for both Saudi Arabia and the United States, which looks to the kingdom for stability in world oil markets and as a key partner in counter-terrorism efforts.

Saudi regime stability hinges on the successful transfer of power to the next generation. The country faces a number of daunting challenges, including tensions between religious conservatives and those seeking a more modern lifestyle; a growing dissent movement of people demanding more say in how they lead their lives, both socially and politically; an economy overly reliant on oil and unable to produce the jobs required to employ the country's youth bulge (some 60 percent of the population is under thirty); as well as serious gender divisions and simmering sectarian tensions.

The current leadership has stared down regional revolutionary fever with incremental changes at home bolstered by significant largess. As the Arab revolts spread across the region in 2011, King Abdullah committed to spend at least $130 billion in subsidies and economic benefits to tamp down demonstrations. It is not clear, however, if such incrementalism can satisfy the growing impatience with the status quo, particularly among young people. It will fall to the next generation of leaders to decide whether and how to pick up the pace on the structural economic and political reforms needed to prevent public discontent from erupting.