The political transition in Saudi Arabia may not have been as smooth as it has been made out to be. Muhammad Bin Nayif’s selection as the Crown Prince of the Crown Prince was intended to solidify the Sudayri clan’s hold on power. Furthermore, the news that Khalid At-Tuwayjiri (whose father, `Abdul-`Azis ran the diwan of `Abdullah for decades before he was succeeded by his son) fled the country indicates that Salman and his allies moved quickly to eradicate the power center of Abdullah and his sons. It is not unlikely that Prince Muqrin will soon be replaced as Crown Prince. The US will play a part in those events.
But no matter how the succession struggle shapes up, the new king—and his successor—will face a number of political dilemmas:
1) There are no known factions among the grandsons of `Abdul-`Aziz, and the number of those princes is so large that such factions will certainly form in the future, influencing the battle for the throne.
2) The drop in oil prices will affect the Saudi plans for the region. If oil prices stagnate, or if they drop further, this will affect the regime’s ability to prop up client dictators throughout the region.
3) The US has played an increasing role in the politics of the kingdom, and even in the succession struggle. The choice of Muhammad bin Nayif (who is not particularly popular within the kingdom) was an American choice. This heavy-handed American role could be used to discredit the ruling faction—from within the royal family itself.
4) King Salman is not medically or mentally fit to rule, and the ruling clique will emerge from among Salman’s sons. If those sons develop along the lines of Turki bin Salman’s political views, as represented in his mouthpiece Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, the government will run into problems with its own population.
5) The Saudi government is running out of an ideological source for political legitimacy. It has been fighting — ostensibly and, in some cases, actually — the Bin Ladenite ideology, while repressing the liberal opposition inside the kingdom. Furthermore, it has also declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood, which could have been a useful ideological counterbalance to its liberal and Bin Ladenite opposition, inside the kingdom and abroad. What kind of ideology will the royal family now represent? It has none and thus will run into a direct confrontation with its own constituency, many of whom were raised on Wahhabi (nay Bin Ladenite) teachings.
6) How will the Saudi government manage to contain the spreading ISIS and even Huthi revolts all around it? How can the government shield itself from the spill-over from Iraq and Yemen?
7) The Saudi regime will have to at least consider the political consequences of an Iranian-American deal regarding the nuclear issue. While the US won’t abandon its client regime in Riyadh, American calculations in this regard supersede the interests of Saudi Arabia and even the interests of its closest ally, Israel.
8) How can the Saudi regime continue to stand by its 2002 Peace Initiative, in the face of growing Palestinian resentment and anger? The reactions of worshippers in the Aqsa mosque to the eulogy of the Saudi King were most telling, and, in turn, provoked strong reactions on Twitter from propagandists of the Saudi royal family.
9) How long can the Saudi government continue to claim to that it supports reforms, in general, while stifling reforms inside the kingdom and even among its client regimes in the region.
10) The attempt by the royal family to stamp out “extremist” clerics may produce an underground layer of clerics who will provide ideological material for undermining the Sauds’ rule.
11) The competition among the second generation of princes for the spoils of oil revenues will be more stiff than ever; those princes don’t adhere to the same rules that governed relations among the first generation of princes (and don’t forget the stiff wars and conflicts between the Saudi princes in the nineteen-fifties and sixties).
This is not to say that the US government and its European allies will not fight tooth and nail to preserve this archaic kingdom and to defend it against internal and external enemies, but there is a limit to what the US can do in the face of tremendous challenges and disturbances, especially if the major threat to the Saudi rule emerges from within the royal family itself.