Analysis / A Sense of Saudi Stability

An increase of a few dozen cents in the price of a barrel of oil and a fall of around one hundred points on the Saudi Arabian bourse can serve as a good indication of the immediate effect of the death of Saudi King Fahd yesterday- neither a revolution nor a trauma.

The sense the kingdom has managed to convey over the past decade, on the surface at least, has been one of political stability. The announcement by Saudi Arabia's new king, Abdullah, that the make-up of the government is not expected to change and that the kingdom's oil policy will remain unaltered has added to this sense of stability.

But this stability has to be reexamined against the backdrop of the developments that have taken place in Saudi Arabia over the past decade, and the past two years in particular.

The stability rests on two foundations - recognition of the heir system among the seven brothers, and the understanding that the ruling family is bound to see to the welfare of the kingdom's citizens. But these two foundations themselves rest on an aging family (King Abdullah is 82 and the crown prince is 78, and neither of the two enjoy good health) whose members harbor a fair amount of mistrust for one another. The new crown prince, for example, Sultan Ibn Abdul Aziz, had designs on the throne and made a concerted effort to undermine the late king Fahd's faith in Abdullah. Luckily for Abdullah, Fahd ceased to function some 10 years ago, and the new king, through tactical moves within the family, managed to win its trust.

Tension also exists between Interior Minister Prince Naif, who is also waiting in line for the throne, and Abdullah on questions pertaining primarily to reforms in the country.

Alongside the family disputes that could in the future undermine the stability of the Saudi regime, the kingdom is also having to deal with two severe fundamental problems - the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, coupled with unemployment; and the reform being demanded by liberal circles influenced by the United States. Abdullah has initiated several stated reforms, but has yet to do enough to satisfy the reformists.

The pressures from home with regard to the problem of poverty have joined the religious pressure on the part of the Shi'ite minority, as well as anti-reform pressure from radical circles.

Thus far, Abdullah has done relatively well in maneuvering around these pressures, but with the line to the throne becoming ever shorter, he may find himself facing a few more rebels from within his own house.

When it comes to foreign policy, it is clear to the Saudi royal family that there is no cause for change.