The Saudi royal family is afraid. Very, very afraid. A crisis of leadership is brewing. The king is ailing and his successor, Crown Prince Sultan, is in even worse health. Their hard-line brother, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, is set to take the throne. One of the last absolute monarchies, the Saudi family seems to represent all that the Arab Spring is fighting against: closed societies with unequal wealth distribution; repressed minorities living within manufactured boundaries; strong Islamist sympathies across its lands; a latent Sunni-Shia power struggle embedded in the country’s fabric—not to mention a string of surrounding states struggling to stave off revolutions that could easily have a contagion effect.
We should be careful not to count the al-Sauds out. They are among the world’s most proven survivors. Their first kingdom lasted from 1744—when they made their alliance with the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn-Abdul Wahhab—until 1818, when an Ottoman-Egyptian army crushed it. A second kingdom controlled the Nejd, located in the center of the Arabian Peninsula, from 1824 to 1891. The current kingdom began with Ibn Saud’s taking of Riyadh in 1902 and was consolidated in the 1930s after a war with Yemen. The al-Sauds are comeback kids.
They also outlasted the Arab revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s. The monarchies in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Yemen all collapsed, but the Kingdom fought back, ultimately bogging down Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in a bloody insurgency in Yemen. They outlived Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi threat in the 1990s. The Saudi royals are skilled at playing inter-Arab civil wars.