Saudi Leadership: A Continual Failure

In light of recent revolts across the Arab world, one might think the Saudi ruling family would realize that their increasingly restless population is suffering from the same injustices that led Egyptians, Yemenis, Libyans, and others to rebel.  Instead, Saudi rulers have done everything they can to crush the hopes of their people and to strengthen the regime's grip on power.

The Saudi people want freedom and an end to oppression.  However, they are becoming increasingly convinced that violent action might be the only avenue available for securing their basic human rights.  Given the upheavals in the region and the Saudi people's collective yearning for political reform, King Abdullah should have taken some important steps to bring change to the country.  

His first step should have been to direct the Royal Allegiance Committee, which he created in 2006, to select a qualified crown prince after the deaths of Crown Prince Sultan in 2011 and Crown Prince Naif in 2012.  This would have shown that a mechanism, albeit royal, is in place to select qualified individuals to lead the country instead of the old methods of choosing individuals based on seniority and positions in government and family.

 Secondly, he should have convened a conference of reform-minded royals along with pro-democracy and human rights advocates to form a transitional council capable of restructuring the country's political system.  The king could have asked such a council to draft a constitution in which the rights of all citizens and non-citizens are protected.  This move would have created a history-making process through which an inclusive political structure that royal and non-royal members of society have been demanding for decades.

In lieu of heading off domestic challenges through reform, the king chose to appoint three prominent opponents of political change to key positions in the government.  Prince Salman, former governor of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and a staunch supporter of ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam, became the nation's new crown prince.  Prince Ahmed, who is expected to continue Prince Naif's feared and detested security policies, became interior minister.  Meanwhile, Prince Bandar became the country's new intelligence chief.  These three princes have been among the royal architects of the Saudi state's schizophrenic, repressive government policies for the last several decades.

The king's appointments did not give pro-reform Saudis much hope for a peaceful transition.  None of these appointees has shown any interest in human rights or political change in Saudi Arabia.  Not only that, but Saudis fear an increase in the already rampant corruption in the public sector.  Prince Bandar, for instance, has been involved in scandalous backroom deals.  In addition, many Saudis know that Bandar's singular concern is preserving his family's rule at any cost, and this obsession means that he will likely continue his predecessors' harsh practices.

Since the 1960s, Salman, the newly designated heir to the throne, and his brothers, known as the Sudairi Seven, have had almost an exclusive monopoly on the country's domestic and foreign policies, as well as its security apparatuses.  Salman is often praised for his service to Islam because of his generous support for several Muslim charitable organizations, including the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and the Al-Haramain Charitable Foundation.  Some of these foundations have been banned from operating in the U.S. and elsewhere because of their ties to extremist and terrorist groups.

In addition to being frustrated by the lack of reform, the Saudi people are now wondering who is really managing their country's day-to-day affairs.  The unpopular leadership of princes like Bandar and Salman, coupled with King Abdullah's poor health, has left them in a state of perpetual limbo, uncertain of what the future holds. 

King Abdullah had a rare opportunity to appoint reform-oriented replacements for Princes Sultan and Naif.  Rather, he opted to continue policies and practices that will likely drive the Saudi people to follow the example of their Arab counterparts.