At 84, he had been an invalid since his stroke in 1995. The immediate succession by his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, and his succession as Crown Prince in turn by Prince Sultan, in one sense merely confirms a power structure in place for a decade. Although hardly a happy situation (the two are barely on speaking terms) it does seem to provide an interim period of continuity and, in Abdullah, puts on the throne a man of accepted probity and some modernising instincts.
It is unlikely to be for more than a short period, however. Abdullah is 82, while Prince Sultan, a full brother of the late King, is 81 and suffering from cancer. After they go, the succession will be in the hands of a new generation of which the world, and most of Saudi Arabia indeed, know very little.
That in itself is an indication of just how cut-off Saudi Arabia remains, for all its wealth and the foreign indulgences of its princes. Power remains in the hands of a 20,000-strong royal family, all wealthy from oil but few inspired with the need to serve the common good. The family has been under rising pressure from the US and Europe to open up and bring about greater democracy at home. Within, however, it has been under even greater pressure from the fiercely conservative Wahhabi religious establishment to keep the kingdom enclosed and the holy places of Mecca and Medina free from Western influence.
So far the rulers have performed a balancing act, presenting one face abroad whilst clamping down on dissent and new ideas at home. Driven partly by President Bush's policy of democracy in the Middle East, the kingdom recently introduced municipal elections, but without the participation of women. It has also continued to arrest critics of the regime, however mild, whilst conducting a violent campaign against religious extremists.
It's a balancing act made possible by high oil revenues, which the rulers have used to buy off their opposition. This is unlikely to prove a viable strategy over the longer, or even medium-term future. In the end the regime must, if it is is to survive, reform from within. A constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia might be feasible. But a selfish, bickering and overindulged family dynasty isolated from the currents of the world and ignoring the aspirations of its citizens is not sustainable.
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