Saudi monarchy is entering troubled waters
The conservative Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has unsurprisingly threatened to ban a controversial anti-Islam video which has predicated so much religious outrage around the Muslim world.
The Saudi government on Wednesday requested search engine giant to Google block all YouTube links playing the film. Equally unsurprisingly, Google has declined to co-operate.
Saudi Arabia, according to the Dubai School of Government, registered 90 million YouTube video views a day – the highest number in the world per internet user. So a little trepidation on the part of Riyadh is understandable.
Riyadh is not talone in coping with reactions to the anti-Islam video. More than 20 countries including Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and Australia weathered protests this past week in response to the perceived offensiveness of the video.
Extraordinarily complex year
However, it is more dangerous for Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh is already experiencing an extraordinarily complex year. And this complexity is compounding, with no end in sight.
Important figures in the Saudi monarchy have died, internal instability simmers among a youthful population, and their historically proximate rival Iran is challenging the kingdom over energy dominance in the Middle East.
Such a video may not normally have stirred such reactions in Saudi. But, coupled with spreading access to the internet and a looming succession minefield, the monarchy elites are justifiably nervous and lashing out.
The death of two crown princes in the past 11 months continue to whittle down an experienced second generation. As their numbers decrease, an approaching generational shift will test stability in the country with world’s second largest oil reserves.
One of this year’s landmark changes occurred with the death of Saudi Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz on June 16. He was part of a declining legacy of Saudi elites with a chequered record of state governance.
Naif was the last major member of the Sudairi Seven. This powerful group of princes are the full brothers and sons of Abdulaziz bin al-Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom.
The death of Naif is another lost member of the generation that has ruled Saudi Arabia since the 1930s. Because of advanced age and worsening health of the senior ruling elites, the monarchy faces challenges to a well-established process of succession.
The time is fast approaching when the royals will need to increase the number of third-generation princes in key government posts.
Five to 10 years from now the kingdom will likely be in a period of political unfamiliarity as the newer, less experienced generation prepares to take power.
The king is nearly 90
As the older generation shrinks – Saudi King Abdullah is nudging 90 and is constantly in hospital – the newer generation are still relatively behind experientially.
When, not if, he succumbs to his illnesses he will probably be replaced by Sudairi faction member Crown Prince Salman, another second-generation prince. Salman is only 10 years Abdullah’s junior, hardly a spring chicken.
Many major members of the newer generation hold regional positions of power in 12 of the 13 Saudi provinces.
So while the question of experience is not urgent, there is a possibility in the future of individual power grabs. It is not clear their allegiance is completely behind the kingdom as a traditional monarchy. An affinity with the traditional tribal structure that has nurtured them is not guaranteed.
It will be at least a decade before the second-generation princes cede power to the upcoming generation. Such a buffer should give the monarchy time to prepare sufficiently.
Ideally, the older princes will leave the kingdom to a generation which places stability of the state above personal ambitions.
However, the new generation is much more educated than the second generation. This buffer might just encourage factions to develop among this new breed of princes, leading to potential destabilisation in the future.
The monarchy had expected Naif’s death for some time and is coping well with the power transition. But his position as crown prince and deputy prime minister has remained vacant and unfilled by a third-generation prince.
This potentially signifies a more formal succession process is under way, instead of the traditional method of royal announcement – a process that is a direct response to the shifting mindset of many common Saudis.
Attempting to censor the anti-Islam video demonstrates an evolving approach to Saudi religious discourse, traditionally dominated by the House of Saud.
Clerical elite being challenged
Religious leaders have dictated what is culturally acceptable for nearly a century. Yet social media and the internet are attracting more young Saudis, who use it to challenge the authority of the clerical elite.
Openly criticising the monarchy has not been tolerated. The coercive state apparatus is quick to clamp down on any fledgling dissent, something foreigners can become personally familiar with if the strict religious rules are not observed.
Aside from the digital arena, there are few places to congregate in the kingdom and even less chance to mobilise. Social media, as seen in the Arab world recently, is slowly making it simpler for Saudi youth to spread ideas and criticise the monarch with relatively safely.
Such a new phenomenon as the internet so rapidly introduced into a deeply traditional, tribal and familial culture will be hard to contain for the emerging third-generation leaders.
An exposure to alternative world views can challenge anybody. But for an insular state with a large youth population taking to the internet as they have can potentially be deeply disruptive.
Fastest-growing Twitter users
Twitter CEO Dick Costelo said recently Saudis are the fastest-growing group on the social networking site. Apparently the number of Saudi Twitter users increased by 3000% in June alone.
Some 400,000 people use Twitter, according to Time magazine, with around four million Facebook users also.
The incoming generation of Saudi elites will not inherit a docile, controlled populace that have been such a blessing to leaders for almost a century. The internet has put paid to that.
The basis of Saudi nationalism is loyalty to the House of Saud. A challenge for incoming leaders will be to manage a population willing to flex its democratic ambitions smoothly and without turmoil.
They will have to balance a populace with increasing exposure to, and alignment with, democratic ideals and a traditional process of formulating government.
If the trends toward democratic upheaval in the region are bellwethers, such an urge may win out in the end. What that will do to oil prices is anyone’s guess.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict