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Generation change

Anne Allmeling / ccJanuary 3, 2015

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is one of the oldest monarchs in the world. He has named two of his brothers as his successors - but the princes are almost as old as the ailing autocrat.

Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud König Saudi Arabien 11.09.2014
Image: Reuters/Brendan Smialowski

Observers of the Gulf region pricked up their ears at the news: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has been admitted to hospital in the capital, Riyadh, on Wednesday, where he is being treated for pneumonia.

The health of the aged Saudi monarch, who enjoys absolute power in the country, is a matter of great importance not just for the kingdom itself. Saudi Arabia's status as one of the world's largest oil exporters as well as its role in regional power struggles means that Abdullah's condition is also being observed closely around the world.

But for the Saudi royal family, Abdullah's illness raises a controversial issue: the question of a possible generation change. Since the death of the state's founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, in 1953, the eldest son has always been succeeded by his brother - insofar as the latter is able and willing to rule the kingdom. Abdullah's precise age is disputed, but he's believed to be over 90. The two designated crown princes, Salman and Muqrin, are themselves already almost 80 and 70 years old respectively.

Numerous offspring

Abdullah officially assumed the throne in 2005, when he took over from his half-brother Fahd. However, he is regarded as having been the de facto ruler of the country since the 1990s, as Fahd was very ill for several years prior to his death.

Außenminister John Kerry in Saudi Arabien zu Gesprächen über Irak und Syrien
The House of Saud has hundreds of members and several branchesImage: Reuters

Fahd and Abdullah are just two of more than 40 sons ibn Saud fathered with several different women. Many of these children have already died, including Sultan and Naif, who were initially designated Abdullah's successors.

For some time now the grandchildren of the state's founder have been hoping the crown might pass to them. Some of these grandchildren are actually older than ibn Saud's younger sons. Until now, though, the crown still hasn't come down to the next generation.

The Saudi royal family is still divided on the question. There have already been numerous conflicts over the succession. Different groups have tried to assert their own interests - the so-called Sudairi Seven, for example. These were seven brothers, including Fahd, Sultan, and Naif, who all have the same mother and were seen as particularly influential until her death.

In 2007 King Abdullah established a succession commission to decide who takes the throne if the king and the crown prince should fall ill or die. However, as with so many political decisions in the conservative royal house, it is unclear whether or not this commission actually does play a role.

Slow reforms

The pace of reform in the biggest Gulf state seems to be particularly slow. Many of those involved are far advanced in years, but this is only part of the problem: the need for consensus also slows down the process. Saudi Arabia may be an absolute monarchy, but this also means that the royal family is involved when the most important decisions are made, and the majority of the princes must be in agreement. This is becoming increasingly difficult in a royal family comprising hundreds of members and numerous branches.

Protest gegen das Frauenfahrverbot in Saudi-Arabien Aktivistin Manal Al Sharif
There is a growing debate in Saudi Arabia over women's rights and other issuesImage: Getty Images/AFP/Marwan Naamani

It is still unclear which of ibn Saud's grandsons will be the first to ascend the throne. The political leadership keeps getting older, while Saudi Arabia itself remains a comparatively young country: two-thirds of the population are 25 and under.

Saudi Arabia remained relatively quiet during the so-called Arab Spring. Thanks to the country's immense oil wealth, the monarchy was able to guarantee the people prosperity. But there are tensions within society that cannot be ignored - over religion, women's rights, and political participation, for example. Many of these problems are being discussed on social networks, especially by the younger generation. And which of the royal family will be the one to lead the country in future is still anybody's guess.