Saudi Arabia upheaval will soon rock Middle East and beyond

Saudi Arabia King Abdullah bin Abdul al-said  in 2007. U.S. government photo/ Cherie A. Thurlby.
Saudi Arabia King Abdullah bin Abdul al-said in 2007. U.S. government photo/ Cherie A. Thurlby.

Politics are heating up in Saudi Arabia, a key player in the three-cornered contest in the Middle East between modernity, theocracy and absolutism, a contest waged between warring proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, and felt in corners of the world from Paris to Nigeria. International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe notes that, like many countries of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia was born out of the destruction of the Ottoman Turkish empire in the First World War. The turmoil that will soon wrack the country will reverberate far beyond its borders, due to its wealth and its influence as the leading exponent of Sunni Islam in the contest for regional pre-eminence with Shia Islam, led by Iran. An excerpt of Manthorpe’s new column, Saudi Arabia succession struggle looms as king ails:

It’s been a long time coming, but the looming crisis in Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy is finally in clear sight.

What has brought matters into focus was the dispatch to hospital in Riyadh this week of 91-year-old King Abdullah, who is suffering from pneumonia. The king’s months of evident ill health come after his attempt to embed some political stability in the country of 29 million people and the world’s largest oil producer by appointing not only his successor, but also his successor’s successor.

Far from providing security and continuity, Abdullah’s action is more likely to set off a potentially disastrous contest for the throne among Saudi Arabia’s princely families.

The prospect of political upheaval in Saudi Arabia is severe. Saudi Arabia is the heartland of the Sunni Muslim sect and the home of the most sacred Islamic sites. But it is has a large and restive population of Shia Muslims and is the fountainhead of the most fanatical and violent Muslim organizations such as Al-Qaida and the Islamic State group (ISG), also known by the Initials ISIS and ISIL.

Vast floods of income from its oil reserves and reasonable cohesion within the royal family have enabled the Saudi government to keep a lid on the country’s internal contradictions. But if the current halving of oil prices continues indefinitely, with resulting damage to Saudi Arabia’s patronage-based economy, and the royal family of about 15,000 princes and princesses shatters into contesting factions, then the future looks grim for not only the country but the region. Log in first to continue reading Saudi Arabia succession struggle looms as king ails (subscription required*)

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