Leading Article: Shifting sands in Saudi Arabia

Share
Related Topics
It is impossible to understate the centrality of Saudi Arabia to the stability of the Middle East. So Western countries should be relieved at the temporary handover of power in Saudi Arabia to Crown Prince Abdullah. Given fears for the health of King Fahd and a possible succession crisis, the change spells stability. The Crown Prince has been number two in the government, and although thought to be more conservative than his half- brother he is expected to carry on with business as usual.

That is important for Britain, for which the $20bn Al-Yamamah arms-for- oil package is the defence industry's biggest weapons contract.

Yet stability in Saudi Arabia is important for other reasons: as the Gulf war showed, the kingdom is a vital restraint on the territorial ambitions of regional powers such as Iraq and Iran. Serious and persistent unrest in a country that is custodian of the Islamic shrines of Mecca and Medina would unsettle the region and might set back the peace process with Israel. Not least significant, Saudi Arabia is the location of a quarter of the world's oil reserves.

Saudi Arabia is in a vulnerable position: there has never been more potential for unrest and disturbance, as the handover does not make the kingdom's administration secure. Technically, King Fahd could return to power, once he has recovered, leading to fresh uncertainty. The Crown Prince's fitness to rule might yet be contested by rival relatives. At 71, he is hardly younger than the King: he may not enjoy power for long. A succession crisis may have been postponed rather than averted.

Regardless of his appointment, the 60-year-old monarchy must face two difficult issues if it is to survive. First, it must find a way of neutralising the small, but vociferous opposition. A car bomb in November outside a American-run training centre for the Saudi National Guard demonstrated how deep within the country Islamic terrorists could penetrate. That threat could increase in years to come, particularly if the Saudi regime fails to respond to a desire for a more Islamic style of government.

To forestall the growth of opposition to their rule, the Saudi royal family must continue to broaden its political base. This process was begun by King Fahd through the establishment of a consultative council, made up of appointees drawn from the great and good. The council has gained influence, but unless the regime moves further towards consensus government it, like every other absolute monarchy in history, will be doomed.

The second task is to reduce the kingdom's dependence on oil, which has left the country in financial trouble, with borrowings growing and state and corporate budgets under pressure. Diversification is easier said than done: any Saudi ruler will face opposition to change from at least some entrenched family interests. The challenge will be for the new ruler to keep his large extended family (including 6,000 princes) happy without alienating the rest of his country.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own