Sir Harold Walker KCMG is a former UK Ambassador to Bahrain, the UAE and Iraq. He has long-standing experience of the Arab world, and also serves on the Council for Arab-British Understanding. He is an Honorary Vice-President of the RSAA.
The death of Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud at the age of about 91 and the succession of his half-brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, formerly the Crown Prince, as King of Saudi Arabia (or more properly Guardian of the Holy Places) has inevitably given rise to speculation about the future stability of the Kingdom, particularly given that Salman, who is 79, is said to be in ill health.
Stripped to essentials, the situation in Saudi Arabia is as follows. Saudi Arabia, the eponymous state of the Al Saud (Saud family), is a family business, with members of the large family placed in strategic positions throughout the state, including the security apparatus. As in any family there are internal disputes, but these are settled by family mechanisms. Already, the Deputy Crown Prince, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, another half-brother, has been smoothly moved up to be Crown Prince.
In a country that is deeply conservative (except in parts of the Hejaz) the family draws much of its strength from its historic alliance with the clerical authorities. King Abdullah saw the need for progress in the directions of secular education, rights for women, and increased political participation by his people; but to preserve the balance of forces within the Kingdom he proceeded at a pace that to outsiders was glacially slow.
King Abdullah showed great skill in manoeuvring between the conflicting pressures in the Kingdom, not to mention the formidably challenging external environment. It may be that Salman will not have the capacity to show the same sureness of touch. But the structure of the state will be strong enough to survive this possibility.
All the statements above are open to debate: are the mechanisms adequate to solve internal family rivalries; is the pace of social change too fast or too slow? However that may be, in the opinion of this writer there is no short-term threat to the stability of the Saudi state. What will force significant change upon it in the longer run, in ways that cannot be foreseen with precision, is one of King Abdullah’s major achievements, namely the Scholarship Program that now sees as many as 100,000 young Saudis studying in the United States.