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At a crossroads

Loay Mudhoon / cmk
January 23, 2015

There are stormy times ahead for Saudi Arabia and its new king. Gridlock with domestic political reforms and foreign policy failures threaten the future of the Wahhabi monarchy, says DW's Loay Mudhoon.

König Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud
Image: Reuters/L. Zhang

It didn't take long to name the successor to the late Saudi King Abdullah. Given his long illness, the Saudi ruling family had sufficient time to prepare. However, the smooth transfer of power cannot hide the fact that the Saudi leadership under the new King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud faces a host of foreign policy conflicts and domestic challenges.

The new king - who, like his predecessor, is believed to suffer from dementia or Parkinson's disease - is considered to be relatively open-minded "reformist" - at least by Saudi standards. But at the age of 79, he's at best a transitional monarch. A real generational change in the Saudi royal family is yet to come, merely postponed by a few years.

New king - Old dilemma

Domestically, the new king is up against the same dilemma faced by all rulers of the house of Al Saud since the establishment of the monarchy: The secular elite's struggle to keep in check the influence of the ultra-conservative, puritanical Wahhabis in order to enact the necessary social and civil reforms.

The room to maneuver is, of course, limited. The Wahhabi fundamentalists are a central part of the power structure. In addition, Wahhabism is not just the most important part of the Al Saud family legitimacy; in fact, it's a kind of state ideology. This is precisely why Saudi Arabia promotes radical Wahhabi missionaries in many countries - thus decisively contributing to the expansion of Salafism around the world.

Deutsche Welle Kultur Hintergrund Qantara Loay Mudhoon
Image: DW

Epicenter of the counter-revolution

The popular uprisings in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011 were a major challenge to the Saudi leadership. They feared that the revolutionary dynamic would spread to their own young, Internet-savvy and increasingly disaffected population.

For that reason, they placed themselves at the head of the counter-revolution and financed the 2013 military coup against Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president. Even before that, the Saudis intervened with their military to help quell Bahrain's peaceful citizens' movement.

But the regional policy of stability at any cost has come up against increasing foreign policy failures. The rise of the "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria and Iraq has shown, to an impressive extent, the limited external influence of Saudi Arabia's Sunni leadership. For Saudi Arabia, the IS jihadists pose an existential threat and in their fight against them, the Saudis will need to rely on the help of Western allies.

New approaches needed

The failure of Saudi Arabia's Syria policy is also of grave concern. Its support of the Syrian opposition has not produced the desired result; the murderous Assad regime continues to firmly hold on to power. Riyadh's fear of an Iranian-Shiite hegemony in the Middle East has not diminished, especially since the royal family's relationship with Turkey, the largest and most influential Sunni regional power, is considered to be poor.

With a backlog of reforms severely affecting the performance of the Arab world's largest economy, and faced with the growing discontent among its very young population due to a lack of civil rights and opportunities for participation in the government, substantial reforms are essential.

However, if the elites surrounding Saudi Arabia's new king are unable to push through such reforms in state and society, against the resistance of the Wahhabi establishment, and if they aren't willing to increase their cooperation with other regional powers, it's likely that in the foreseeable future, Saudi Arabia could become a hotbed of instability.