From afar, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia appears immune from the turmoil and uncertainty engulfing nations such as Syria, Egypt and Libya. But rather than being an oasis of stability in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is nearing its own crisis point.
The elderly sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, who have ruled sequentially since his death in 1953, are approaching the end of the line. And as that happens, the future of this kingdom on which the world depends for oil has never been more precarious.
King Abdullah is nearly 90 and ailing. Crown Prince Salman is 76. The royal family can continue to pass the monarchy to remaining brothers and half-brothers, but even the youngest of these is in his late 60s. None is likely to have the acumen and energy -- or even the time -- to usher in an era of reform to solve the kingdom's mounting problems: poor education, high unemployment, a corrupt bureaucracy, a sclerotic economy and an increasingly young and frustrated society. These domestic challenges are compounded by external ones, which include the fracturing of Middle East societies, the nuclear ambition of the radical regime in Iran and a fraying alliance with the United States.
The three historic pillars of Saudi stability are cracking. Massive oil revenue, which has bought public passivity, is threatened by peaked production and sharply increased domestic energy consumption. A supportive Wahhabi Islamic establishment that bestowed legitimacy on the House of Saud is increasingly fractious and is losing public credibility. And now, the royal family is in danger of division as it is forced to confront generational succession.
Whether by the choice of the royal family sooner or by the will of Allah a bit later, the crown is going to pass to a new generation. This entails risk as well as opportunity.
The opportunity is obvious. In theory at least, a new-generation royal leader -- educated, more open-minded and above all more energetic -- could begin to tackle the country's manifold problems by relaxing political and economic controls and by providing more efficient and accountable government to relieve the frustrations of a sullen populace.
Given the stakes, however, the risk is that the diffuse and divided royal family will dither or, worse yet, splinter. The issue is not merely which new prince would wear the crown, but the fear among the royals that his branch of the family would pass it on to its sons and grandsons in perpetuity, precluding other branches from ever ruling again.
For nearly 60 years, the crown has passed by family consensus from one brother to the next, occasionally skipping one deemed incapable or unsuitable for leadership, but otherwise following the tradition of seniority. Whoever reigned might favor his sons with particularly plum jobs, but he understood that the crown would go next not to his sons but to his brothers. It is a system unlike that of any other monarchy. But in a kingdom where princes often marry multiple wives and thus produce dozens of progeny each -- now adding up to nearly 7,000 princes -- it is a system that has largely worked.
Given the royal family's aversion to risk, the perpetuation of the status quo -- several more aged and infirm brothers ascending to the throne -- is the most likely choice of senior Saud royals. But what may seem safe to them is dangerous for the country.
Saudi Arabia these days is all too reminiscent of the dying decade of the Soviet Union, during which one decrepit leader succeeded another, from Leonid Brezhnev to Yuri Andropov to Konstantin Chernenko, before a younger and more open-minded Mikhail Gorbachev arrived too late to save a stagnant society and economy. As President Ronald Reagan famously said of those old Soviet leaders, and as the next U.S. president may say of the Saudis, "They keep dying on me."
In Saudi Arabia, there are some potential Gorbachevs -- or better -- among the grandsons of the founder. Ten of the 13 provincial governors are grandsons, all with administrative experience, some with genuine talent and almost all sons of kings. Similarly, there are grandsons holding prominent positions in some key Saudi ministries. A short list of third-generation princes who could be king includes Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Mecca and son of the respected late King Faisal; Muhammad bin Fahd, governor of the oil-producing Eastern Province and son of the late King Fahd; Khalid bin Sultan, deputy minister of defense and son of the late Crown Prince Sultan; and Muhammad bin Nayef, deputy minister of interior for security and son of the late Crown Prince Nayef.
How would a new-generation monarch be selected? Recognizing how large and divided the royal family had become, in 2006 King Abdullah established an Allegiance Council comprising each of his remaining brothers or, in the case of deceased brothers, each one's eldest son. This council of 35 princes is intended to represent the entire Saud family in the selection of a crown prince to succeed the one who automatically ascends to the throne upon the king's death.
Each member of the council would have one vote; in a country that has no democracy, it would at least be a form of family democracy. King Abdullah, who exempted selection of his own successor from this process, already is on his third crown prince, each of whom he personally chose and two of whom died. As a result, the council has met only once: at its formation, when it swore fealty to king and country. Many Saudis fear that the Allegiance Council process will die with King Abdullah -- and with it the hope of a smooth generational succession.
Family feuds are not an idle worry. The Sauds have ruled Arabia on and off for more than 250 years. Infighting among several brothers ended their rule in 1891 and forced into exile a teenage Abdul Aziz, who later returned and founded the current kingdom. On his deathbed in 1953, the long-reigning Abdul Aziz forced his two eldest sons, Saud and Faisal, to swear to avoid a repetition of this history.
The admonition fell on deaf ears. The two brothers quickly began quarreling, and their feud continued for more than a decade before Faisal, with the backing of family members and religious leaders, forced his elder brother into exile.
Aware of this history, Saudis can only watch and wait, exerting no influence on succession decisions but aware that rivalries could break out and a royal house divided might not stand.
Saudi society now bears little resemblance to the passive populace of even a decade ago. Thanks to the Internet, Saudis know about life in the wider world, and they resent the disparities with life inside Saudi Arabia. Fully 60 percent of Saudis are under 20 years old. They know that 40 percent of Saudis live in poverty and that 70 percent can't afford to own a home. They know that 90 percent of workers in the private sector are foreigners, even while unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds is nearly 40 percent. Saudi men won't take the lower-skilled jobs for which they are qualified, and even well-educated Saudi women are not allowed to take jobs for which they are qualified.
Most ordinary Saudis aren't demanding democracy, but merely a more efficient government and a more equitable distribution of the oil riches that they believe belong to the country, not just to the royal family. It is far from certain that a ruler from the new generation could meet these demands, however modest they may seem. What is more certain is that the diminishing line of elderly brothers cannot.
So for the foreseeable future, the royal Saudi 747, richly appointed but mechanically flawed, flies on, its cockpit crowded with geriatric pilots. The plane is losing altitude and gradually running out of fuel. On board, first class is crowded with princely passengers, while frustrated Saudi citizens sit crammed in economy. Among them are Islamic fundamentalists who want to turn the plane around, as well as terrorists who aim to hijack it to a destination unknown. Somewhere on board there may be a competent new flight team that could land the plane safely, but the prospects of a capable pilot getting a chance at the controls seems slim. And so the 747 remains in the sky, perhaps to be hijacked or ultimately to crash.opinion_commentary
Karen Elliott House, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Middle East, wrote the book "On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines -- and Future," which will be published next week. She wrote this for The Washington Post.