Leading Article: Shifting sands in Saudi Arabia

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping the child abuse taking place now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower