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The Transitioning Saudi Leadership

Author: Toni Johnson
November 3, 2011

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Saudi Arabia's Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdel Aziz was appointed crown prince after last week's burial of Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, defense minister since 1962 and former heir to the throne. Sultan's death has led to a reshuffling of the regime's top posts, and placed new scrutiny on the country's system of succession.

Some analysts say the succession of Nayef, less than a decade younger than the reigning eighty-seven-year-old King Abdullah and much more conservative, could be the harbinger of insecurity. Zawya, which provides business analysis for the Middle East, lists numerous challenges for the kingdom, including escalating tensions with Iran, regional unrest, and maintaining good relations with the United States. Instability in the country has enormous implications, particularly for the price of oil and partnership in U.S. efforts against terrorism. The issue of succession (CNN), says analyst Mai Yamani comes at a time when the "Saudi regime is divided, its legitimacy is questioned, and sectarian tensions are growing."

The potential for instability is amplified by an escalating conflict with Iran in the past year. Iran has been angered by Saudi participation in quelling a Shia-led uprising in Bahrain and Saudi sympathies for Sunni protesters in Syria. Iran, meanwhile, faces accusations of an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and instigating Shia-minority riots in eastern Saudi Arabia. F. Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont noted in August that the sectarian rivalry between the two countries (ForeignPolicy) has increased with Arab unrest which should worry the United States, as it has "interest in a stable Iraq, a stable Lebanon, [and] a Syria that does not implode into all-out civil war."

Among experts who say that instability looms in the country's future, exactly when is up for debate. In the short term, some experts say that Nayef, close to the country's clerical establishment, is unlikely to continue to implement reforms started under Abdullah and more likely to favor greater authoritarianism. "Nayef's basic instinct is the survival of the House of Saud," writes CFR's Ed Husain. "He sees Saudi Arabia's religious police and other establishments under his control as a means for consolidating the Saudi monarchy," Husain says. Nayef has also taken a hard line on Iran, which could worsen the strained relationship, say experts. However, Gause and others argue that the aging generation of current leaders, all sons of the original king, will be less destabilizing than transitioning to the next generation (TIME), in which numerous would-be heirs await with no clear line to the throne.

Social, political, and economic reforms are important to the country's long-term future, say most analysts. If the regime does not implement more aggressive reforms, says Leigh Nolan in a May 2011 Brookings paper (PDF), "the Saudi people may force the issue themselves." Saudi human rights activist Ali Alyami calls the country's high unemployment of people under thirty "a ticking time bomb" and says Nayef will likely "preside over a fast-changing and restless society (WeeklyStandard) that is less fearful of authority than in the past." Saudi economist Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg has a more positive view of the country's future and says the country has the means to fix its problems (ArabNews) of unemployment, failing infrastructure, education, and environmental issues by simply improving its bureaucracy.

Background Materials:

Rivals--Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Profile: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Nayef, al-Jazeera

Reform in Saudi Arabia: At a Snail's Pace, Economist

Is a New Arab Order Emerging? CNN

What to Expect from the New Saudi Crown Prince, National Interest

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