Country Report Saudi Arabia May 2011

Outlook for 2011-15: Political stability

The rule of the Al Saud family is expected to remain secure in 2011-15, but there is a risk that the wave of social unrest that has swept across the region could reach Saudi Arabia and threaten political stability-a factor that may have played a role in the kingdom's decision to send troops into neighbouring Bahrain in March. The personal standing of the king, Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, is bolstered by his reputation for piety-domestically, the king uses the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques-but there is believed to be considerable resentment of Al Saud rule, owing to perceptions of corruption, vast inequalities in the distribution of wealth, high youth unemployment and the government's strong ties with the US. Alarmed by the potential for discontent, the king announced a raft of welfare handouts and public-sector wage increases in February and March. However, beyond an announcement that the delayed second municipal elections will take place in September (and beyond also, perhaps, a modest cabinet reshuffle), meaningful political reform is unlikely, given the need to maintain consensus among senior princes with strong power bases of their own and to accommodate the conservative clerical establishment. As a consequence, smaller groups, emulating the tactics of protesters in North Africa and elsewhere (notably their use of social networking websites), are likely to mobilise in protest against specific issues, such as youth unemployment or the plight of prisoners held without trial or charge. However, they will refrain from directly challenging the position of the Al Saud.

Uncertainty persists about the political succession, which will be an increasingly pressing issue, as both the king and the crown prince, Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, are in their late 80s. Prince Sultan has been suffering from a long-standing illness, thought to be cancer, and is unlikely to survive King Abdullah. By law, the heir to the throne must be a male descendant of the country's founder, Abdel-Aziz al-Saud. Traditionally, the crown prince is appointed by the king, but King Abdullah has established a formal council of the direct descendants of Abdel-Aziz to help to determine the succession. This is intended to ensure that future kings have broad legitimacy within the family, but its mandate does not begin until after King Abdullah's reign has ended. The interior minister, Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, whom the king appointed as second deputy prime minister in 2009, is widely seen as the most likely successor. Prince Nayef has a strong internal power base and is regarded as a conservative; principally concerned with stability, he is unlikely to promote reform-indeed, he has advocated a zero-tolerance approach to any political protests that might occur in Saudi Arabia, and was probably the driving force behind the decision to send troops into Bahrain to support its royal family. Salman bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, the governor of Riyadh, the capital, is another contender, and a less well-known prince could emerge as a consensus candidate. There will be an increasing focus on the eventual transfer of power to the next generation, with the sons of Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef and Prince Salman among the possible contenders.

There is an ongoing threat of attacks by Saudi militant groups loosely aligned with al-Qaida. Attacks on government and Western targets will be attempted, possibly from Yemen, although Saudi Arabia's border defences and military capability will be strengthened by arms purchases. The government will continue to arrest suspected militants and in some cases will attempt to co-opt them by putting them through rehabilitation programmes. If the instability in Yemen worsens to the extent that its government is incapable of tackling al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula-an offshoot of al-Qaida that has become established in Yemen-there is an increasing likelihood of direct Saudi intervention in the country.

The king has taken steps towards implementing some socially liberalising reforms but will avoid risking a backlash from within the clerical establishment and from conservatives. Job shortages and increasing unemployment could also lead to discontent among Saudi nationals, although potentially controversial economic reforms, such as the withdrawal of subsidies, will be put on hold for the time being in light of regional events. There are also signs that the marginalised Shia minority, which faces tight restrictions on religious practices and economic discrimination, are become increasingly restive, although the possibility of an all-out insurrection remains very slim.

© 2011 The Economist lntelligence Unit Ltd. All rights reserved
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