The proverb in full is “Clouds are a promise made, rain is a promise kept.” It comes from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country of many clouds and little rain. King Abdullah has dubbed Nayef bin Abdul Aziz the Crown Prince, over the objections of several members of the Allegiance Council. The House of Saud forestalled the Arab Spring KSA by carpet-bombing that unhappy country with cash and sinecures and a few token reforms. This essay will attempt to make a few guesses about the future of KSA, perhaps the USA's most important partner in that part of the world.
As the sons of the House of Saud age and wither, their succession resembles nothing so much as the procession of decrepit commissars who tottered up to the Kremlin to die in the latter days of the Soviet Union. Back in the day, Kremlinology was much akin to those Rorschach Tests, blobs of ink meant to summon up images from the subconscious. Saud-ology is not much different, I suppose: we know about as much about the internal workings of the House of Saud as we did about the Kremlin then. I correctly predicted the USSR would fall, as early as 1984, saying the Kremlin would eventually run out of old guys willing to sustain the travesty. People used to laugh at me, back then. They don't laugh now: Russia returns to its ancient pattern of pater patriae under Putin, no longer very Communistic but truer to form than it ever was under Lenin and Stalin.
The USSR was a charade and in many ways, so is KSA. We complain about KSA's intransigence and inability to effect reforms but the House of Saud is backed into a corner: its chief enemies arise from within its many bickering tribes and factions. KSA cannot change much, not without setting in motion its own demise, as the USSR couldn't change without setting in motion its own demise, as the Tsarist regime couldn't change. A country living behind such a mask cannot hope to vary its expression much.
Let us not attempt to draw too narrow a comparison between KSA and the USSR. My point is this: the King of the Hill fights from a fixed position and must control the slopes to the summit. The Old Guard of the USSR wasn't a family enterprise as is the case with KSA. But the more authoritarian the leaders of a regime become the farther they have to fall. Reforms must begin from below: they cannot be instituted from above by royal decree, especially not via the fig leaves of pseudo-reform. The House of Saud has maintained its supremacy by buying compliance from its many enemies and enlisting the grudging military support of its captive clientele, the oil-buying nations, especially the USA. Nayef was not chosen because he's the smartest guy in the room, he's not. He's a boor, a rough and intemperate man who still believes 9/11 was a Zionist plot and continues to oppress the kingdom's Shiite minority with extraordinary cruelty. Nayef was chosen because he represents stability, a continuation of the status quo, that is to say informed and justified fear of change.
KSA is a police state armed with powerful carrots and sticks. Carrots, insofar as it's our most reliable partner in the region: KSA buys our weapons, its mukhabarat feeds us intelligence, its oil fills our gasoline tanks, they torture prisoners for the Americans when it suits both our purposes. Sticks, insofar as it arrests and imprisons its dissidents without warrants or trials: Muhammad al-Abdulkarim, a professor of law, just got out of jail after ten days for mentioning the disputes surrounding the accession of Nayef to the position of Crown Prince. A little coterie of brave dissidents often petitions the King for reforms of various sorts. They usually get a few weeks or months in the slammer for their trouble. As far as I've been able to tell, the Saudi regime hasn't murdered any of them, sensing this might create martyrs who might serve as focal points for more unrest.
Curiously, the dissidents aren't calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. Saudi society, even at its most liberal, is fairly conservative. The dissidents say a constitutional monarchy would be a good idea and wouldn't destabilize the country. They're a bit naive in thinking so: the Saudi regime would more likely go the way of Iraq and Lebanon for a while as long-oppressed minorities, especially the Shiites, revenged themselves on their erstwhile tormentors. There's also that little matter of the Holy Cities: they used to be under the control of the Rashidi family which now runs the country of Jordan. The first king of Saudi Arabia married into the Rashidi clan to attenuate that feud but it's still alive. Iran would be sure to meddle, stirring up the Shiites as they've stirred the pot in Lebanon and Iraq and Bahrain. Iran's meddling in Bahrain proved intolerable: KSA sent in troops to put down the Shiites. Oh, and don't weep too many tears over the poor oppressed Shiites of Bahrain, Iran used to own Bahrain and wants it back and a goodly fraction of Bahrain speaks Farsi, not Arabic. There are plenty of Christians in Bahrain, too.
The odds of significant reform in KSA are vanishingly long. Nayef is the current beneficiary of the tontine of Saudi succession as the other Sudairi brothers die off. But Nayef isn't King, not yet and not by a long shot. The Saud clan huddles together in an ad-hoc council of allegiance, heirs of the founder of the kingdom, the sons and grandsons of King Abdulaziz's many wives. Though the doors to that council chamber are closed, the uproar within leaks out into the halls of power and many ears are pressed to the doors. The council of allegiance was supposed to elect the successor by secret ballot but it's no secret how things went down: the favored sons of Princess Hassa, the largest power coalition within the family, continue to hold power and install their own progeny in strategic positions within the kingdom.
Old King Abdulaziz had married many wives in an attempt to unify the many clans of the area. It seems to have worked rather too well: his descendants bicker and form clans of their own, jostling for power, a sort of corporation with thousands of superfluous executives with nothing much to do except scheme and plot. A few lust for political supremacy but most do not, content to wallow in luxury. Grown effete and brittle, the bloated House of Saud has never addressed any of the fundamental issues bedeviling modern nation states. There is genuine poverty in KSA. Money has thus far been able to paper over the more loathsome attributes of this most-autocratic and repressive of regimes but it's only a temporary solution. There will be a day of reckoning, as the other tinhorn dictators of the region found out, but it will not be soon. Nayef is the man of the hour, the latest despot with whom the world's leaders shall have to do homage. But it won't be for long.
Nayef isn't a patch on the ass of the likes of King Faisal, who might have brought KSA into the modern world had he survived assassination in 1975. His son-in-law Bandar is a remarkable man, far and away the most intelligent candidate for the job of King. Bandar isn't of the Sudairi lineage, though: he's the child of an illiterate Yemeni concubine. Sultan, Bandar's own father didn't think much of him, but Faisal saw great promise in Bandar and promoted him through marriage to his own daughter. Bandar's a long shot. He's a recondite and elegant politician, the confidant of many US presidents and a great friend of the Bush clan to the point where he's known as “Bandar Bush”. Nayef is a troublesome old coot but he'll soon be gone, I hope. I'm rooting for Bandar.