The smooth succession of royals is crucial to the stability of the Saudi oil state. Ever since King Faysal, the Saudi monarchy has alternated branches of the family on the throne in order to maintain a degree of balance between competing royal family factions. This principle is likely to hold true today too, as the kingdom navigates its way from the rule of King Abdullah and the now-deceased Crown Prince Sultan to the rule of Crown Prince and next king, Nayif. The process of balancing and satisfying royal factions depends on patience and conservatism within royal circles. It also requires quiet in the streets of Riyadh and Jedda – and thus far, there are no signs of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ spreading to Saudi Arabia.
On December 16, the Saudi city of Medina witnessed severe clashes between Sunnis and Shiites. The clashes occurred at the time of the annual Ashura gathering, when Shiites commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Although the local press referred only to anonymous mobs, it was clear from international reporting and Saudi Shiite websites that this was a sectarian riot.
While unrest has rattled the Middle East in recent months, Saudi Arabia has taken all necessary measures to maintain stability within its own borders. Its success in doing so stems from two factors: oil wealth and tradition. The royal family has appeased its citizens by pumping more money into the economy and into their pockets. At the same time, religious inclinations as well as a lack of tradition of mass political activity have ingrained in most of the Saudi people a sense of loyalty toward its leadership.