The recent visit by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to a New York hospital for back surgery was a reminder of an unsettling issue with global implications: Who will succeed the 86-year-old monarch? The king, who is recovering and has started physical therapy, has been a stabilizing influence in the Middle East and has carefully embraced economic and societal reform. The question is whether his successors will continue his work or whether Saudi Arabia's liberalization will stall.
King Abdullah's father, Abdul Aziz, formed the kingdom in 1932 from a land of warring tribes and modest settlements. Poverty and illiteracy were widespread. Even today, Saudi leaders must manage the trick of letting in enough fresh air to nurture economic and social growth while not offending conservative sensibilities. Depending on who receives the nod, recent progress in modernizing the economy and other reforms including better treatment for women could prove vulnerable. Also possible is paralysis under an enfeebled ruler, as most of the other surviving sons of Abdul Aziz are elderly. "Succession is really a problem," says Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Riyadh-based democracy advocate. "We don't know what is going to happen."
The future is hard to predict because the royal family's senior members are ultra-secretive about their thinking. Two princes are thought by most analysts to be next in line. One is Sultan, the Crown Prince and Defense Minister. He is 82 and in very poor health. Yet he was recently flown back from his palace in Morocco to take charge in Abdullah's absence.
The other possibility is 76-year-old Prince Nayef, the Minister of the Interior, who controls the domestic security services and the religious police. According to Mark Weston, author of a book on the kingdom called Prophets and Princes, Nayef opposes reform because he doesn't think Saudi Arabia needs fixing. "I have said it clearly: 'No to change,' " Nayef told the Saudi Gazette in 2003. "However, there is scope for development." He has declared himself a skeptic on women's rights and elections. "Some of the social reforms would slow a little further under his stewardship without really going into reverse," says Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter in Britain. Even if neither of these front runners becomes king, it is likely that the royal family will tap another prominent son of Abdul Aziz, says F. Gregory Gause III, an Arabist at the University of Vermont. Abdul Aziz had 45 sons, and many survive, including Salman, 71, the governor of Riyadh.
Abdullah formally assumed power from his brother in 2005, though he had been de facto ruler for a decade. He has been a vigorous and progressive leader. A man of modest tastes who lacks formal education, he founded the kingdom's first coeducational university; raised oil production capacity by about a third, to 12.5 million barrels per day; modernized financial services; and presided over an economy that, despite some hiccups in the banking system, rode out the global recession more smoothly than neighbors Kuwait and Dubai. Abdullah has relied on technocrats such as Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi, and Abdul Rahman al Tuwaijri, who heads the Capital Market Authority, to set sensible policies. He has improved relations with the U.S. since the alliance hit its nadir after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and has made sure that Saudi crude flows to the U.S. unhindered by political considerations.
The king used Saudi Arabia's roughly $400 billion in financial reserves to fund a stimulus package that kept real gross domestic product growth, expected to be 3.5 percent this year, from falling below 0.6 percent last year. "Without the high-powered spending, the kingdom would not have been able to break competitively into the 21st century," says John Sfakianakis, chief economist of Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh.
A changing of the guard may already be happening by stealth. Sultan has installed his son, Khaled, 61, as chief of the regular military. He ran the recent war against Yemeni insurgents on the kingdom's southern border. Nayef's son is in charge of the Interior Ministry day to day and has led the counterinsurgency effort against al Qaida militants. Abdullah recently put his own son in command of his main power base, the tribal national guard. For global leaders and businesspeople who would like Abdullah's progressive policies to continue, the best hope is that the younger generation will persuade its uncles and fathers to keep relying on capable technocrats, and that a U-turn toward the past would not be smart politics.
The bottom line: Saudi King Abdullah has been a progressive ruler. The question hanging over the kingdom is if his successor will be a reformer, too.