Saudis braced for change

As Saudi Arabia admits that King Fahd has been hospitalised, fears are growing that upheaval is imminent. John R. Bradley, author of the book Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis, analyses what the future holds for the House of Saud.

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By  John R. Bradley Published  June 5, 2005

Saudis braced for change|~|FIGUREHEAD-200.jpg|~|FIGUREHEAD: Since suffering a debilitating stroke in 1995, King Fahd’s diplomatic and political role has been largely symbolic.|~|Saudi Arabians may publicly be praying for the best, but privately they are bracing for the worst: an announcement in the coming days or weeks by the royal palace that King Fahd, their ruler for the last two decades, has died, ushering in a new and highly unpredictable era in the kingdom’s history. An unprecedented statement two weeks ago by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced King Fahd’s hospitalisation, and called on the Saudi people to pray for his speedy recovery. Unofficial reports, quoting unnamed hospital sources, have since said that the king is suffering from pneumonia and respiratory problems, and had water drained from his lungs. On Monday, he was said to be “improving” by interior minister Prince Naif, although he remains in intensive care. The Interior Ministry immediately shot down speculation that a “state of alert” had been issued to the internal security forces. Life on the streets, by all accounts, was continuing as normal. But changes in the Saudi political landscape — even those that resulted in palace coups — have always taken place hidden from general view, deep in the corridors of power inside the kingdom’s vast palaces that constitute the royal court. So not too much should be read into the silence that seems to hang over the question of succession, should King Fahd die. More significant, perhaps, is the news that Saudis princes were said to be returning en masse to Riyadh, perhaps in anticipation of an imminent funeral. However much the ruling Al Saud family — whose country sits on one quarter of the world’s known oil reserves, and whose nationals made up three quarters of the 9/11 hijackers — tried to convince the world that everything was just as it should be last week, even going ahead with a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, the announcement of Fahd’s hospitalisation came as a bombshell. It followed frenzied speculation over the past month that the king was in a coma or indeed clinically dead, all heightened by his near-total absence from the political arena during that period. Two days before the official announcement, the Saudi stock exchange tumbled five percentage points after text messages circulated with the rumour that he had already been admitted to hospital. Such speculation among Saudis, of course, is nothing new. Reports of King Fahd’s death have been almost as frequent in recent years as clashes between the Saudi security forces and Al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants. It could just be that this time round the king will be able once again to declare that rumours of his death “have been greatly exaggerated”. However, with each day that passes and he remains in hospital such a scenario becomes less likely. And this time round there is a big difference: unlike during previous hospital visits, mainly for eye surgery, the 82-year-old monarch’s health — even if he does recover from the latest hospital treatment — has probably suffered such a serious blow that he will not be able even to perform the symbolic role he has been confined to playing since suffering a debilitating stroke in 1995 and afterwards being confined to a wheelchair. Some 60% of Saudis are under the age of 21 — meaning that since they became aware of politics they have only known King Fahd as a man confined to a wheelchair and largely unaware of what was going on around him. That is a shame. For King Fahd ranks with King Faisal and his son, the present foreign minister Prince Saudi Al Faisal, as having been among the most astute and accomplished of Saudi Arabia’s diplomats and politicians. Appointed education minister at just 30 years of age, he later took on the roles of interior minister and Crown Prince. In his first decade as king he consolidated the extraordinary expansion of Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure on the back of the oil boom years. His greatest moment, the decision for which the world will principally remember him, was allowing in 1991 American troops to launch from Saudi Arabia a war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation — an act for which, of course, the hard-line Islamists will never forgive him. Stationing “infidel” troops on Saudi Arabia’s holy soil brought to the fore historic tensions, both domestic and in the US-Saudi alliance, and how the ruling Al Saud family has always sought to have it both ways as well: to be a force for controlled modernisation while upholding tradition; to be the ally of the West, especially the United States, while both influencing it and keeping its corrupting influences at bay; to provide benefits to the people, paternalistically, while appearing to be just and sage rather than opportunistic and corrupt. One may be a proponent of democracy and nonetheless still be impressed at the delicate balancing act the Al Saud family has performed, as they made themselves seem an indispensable bulwark. The adroitness, if not necessarily the wisdom, of various kings — including King Fahd — must be admitted. But reliance on the intelligence and adroitness of a ruler is a dangerous game, all the more so when government is highly paternalistic. A democracy, after all, is based on faith in the people and the rule of law, not individuals. It is far from clear whether even the younger, Western-educated princes fully appreciate the implications of this fact. It is far from clear, to be more frank, whether many see democracy as a good or necessary force for change. For the regular Saudi seeking to get along with his or her life, the destruction and fear created by instability — whether in terms of a messy succession or terrorist attacks — is far from appreciated. While the radicals’ charges of corruption and hypocrisy against the Al Saud resonate, so too does the Al Saud’s appeal of the need for stability and quiet. After all, one of the worst charges in Islam is that of fitna, the dissension and the chaos created by rebellion. Nevertheless, over time calls for radical reforms will continue and likely increase, even as they risk causing greater instability. The rapid social changes brought about by the oil wealth of the 1970s are one reason. Another is the population growth, including the huge cohort of youth used to wealth, seeking opportunities, increasingly educated, and more and more familiar with the West. The sooner Abdullah becomes king, the better for everyone — with or without Fahd’s demise. Abdullah’s immense popularity among the Saudi masses, the respect for him among the pious, and his close but critical relationship with the US, position him as a true Muslim leader who can unite warring factions and introduce the changes needed to drag the kingdom's society — screaming, if necessary — into the 21st century. He is said to be a reformer, and to rail against corruption. He has an undeniable bond with, and concern about, the impoverished and disenfranchised. Now the time is nearing when he will be able to show his people, and the world, whether he will walk the walk, or just talk the talk. As the transition to the new generation begins in the future it is fully conceivable that different factions within the royal household will increasingly fight for dominance. It is, of course, possible that through a Darwinian process of competition, or through providence, the leaders of the next generation will be as adroit as some of Saudi Arabia’s past leaders, notably King Faisal who famously remarked at the height of the oil boom: “In one generation we went from riding camels to driving Cadillacs. The way we are spending money today, I fear we will soon be riding camels again.” Ultimately, Saudi Arabia’s future is now completely dependant on how Abdullah decides to face the future after King Fahd: whether he deals with reality head on, as Faisal did, or continues to allow all those around him to bury their collective head in the oil-rich sand. One hesitates to bet on any outcome. As competition increases, it is fully possible that the various strategies available to the ruling family will be tried, and it is quite possible that none will be effective. It is easy enough to observe that a house divided against itself will fall, and perhaps even to hope that the Al Saud will realise this rather than allow divisions to provide opportunities to seize control. Everyone expects a “smooth transition”, as Crown Prince Abdullah becomes king and defence minister Prince Sultan takes on the role of crown prince. But Abdullah is a half-brother of King Fahd, unlike Sultan. And it is far from clear whether Abdullah will risk trying to wrestle power from those full brothers — known as the Sundairi Seven — or even if he does how successful he will be in attaining real power. Only a fool would not hope against a bloody outcome. For those waiting in the wings who are most disciplined and determined — and desperate to seize the oil wealth and claim all the prestige that comes with the governorship of the two holy shrines — are the followers of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden. ||**||

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