Game of Thrones: Why the Saudi Succession Spells Instability in the Long Term

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Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, left, speaks with his brother King Abdullah in 2008. (Photo: Hassan Ammar / AP)

The death of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Sultan on Saturday came as no surprise. For years the 86-year-old Saudi defense minister and brother to the king had been ailing, and in fact had been undergoing treatment for cancer in the United States when he died. The appointment of another brother, Prince Nayef, 78, as King Abdullah’s (age 87) next in line won’t take anyone by surprise either – essentially he was appointed deputy crown prince two years ago, when it became clear that the King might outlast his original heir. And while there is some speculation over who will now fall into second place—King Abdullah’s third brother and governor of Riyadh Prince Salman, 75 is a likely choice, though the king’s half brother and Foreign Intelligence Chief Prince Muqrim, at a relatively sprightly 68, is also a contender—what is clear is that little will actually change in the Kingdom, and that is just how both Saudi rulers, and their U.S. patrons, want it. But for how long will that stability last?

There was some speculation that the popular Mecca Governor Prince Khalid bin Faisal could also be in the running. At 71, he may hit the mid range of the succession age spectrum, but his position of grandson to modern Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch, Abdul-Aziz, as opposed to son, would have represented a revolutionary change that would have repercussions not only in the uppermost ranks of the country’s leadership, but could also open doors to a much younger and progressive generation in key ministries. “The thing to watch now is what happens in the ministries,” says Gregory Gause, International Relations professor at the University of Vermont and a specialist in the opaque world of Saudi government. Will Nayef give up his position of Minister of Interior to another brother or a son? Will Sultan’s death open the door to his own son at the Ministry of Defense? “These are all indications of whether they are trying to keep the ministries in the hands of the old generation or passing them down,” says Gause.

With most of those directly in line to the throne hobbling about with canes, hip replacements or in wheel chairs, one could be forgiven for thinking of Saudi palaces as particularly well-appointed old age homes. The next few decades in Saudi Arabia are likely to be marked by a succession of funerals and coronations as the top position in the world’s largest oil exporter cycles through a generation that had more to do with the Kingdom’s foundations than it does with the country’s future. As the crown passes from head to head, it is likely to slow the process of reform and progress in a kingdom that in many ways still feels mired in the last century. The ruling family’s authoritarian grip on power may provide stability in the short term, but with half the population under the age of 18, and with a leadership almost entirely above the age of 70, it seems inevitable that tensions will rise.

“These demographics are a warning bell no matter how old or young the leadership is,” says Gause. “This time the Saudis dodged the oncoming train of the Arab spring, but its not because they don’t have problems. They do. Unemployment is high in Saudi, just like it was in Egypt and Tunisia.” King Abdullah, who is currently recovering from major surgery in a Riyadh hospital, managed to stave off the Arab spring with a skillful combination of carrots and sticks. He announced a massive increase in public spending—some $130 billion over the next decade—on education reform, jobs and public housing for young Saudis. At the same time he enacted a fierce media law that prohibits criticism of the regime, and helped neighboring Bahrain’s violent crackdown on their own reformist uprising. He announced that women would be able to vote for the first time in 2015’s local council elections, but the security agencies have also detained and threatened to flog women who defied the decades old ban on female drivers. The king has made it clear that reform will be on the leadership’s schedule, not on the people’s will. And as long as the Saudis have money, says Gause, “they have wiggle room.”

As for the younger generation of Saudi rulers? There is certainly talent to be mined. But with thousands of descendants of the founding royal family clamoring for position and recognition, its unlikely that the succession will be smooth. As long as the sons of Abdul-Aziz are in power, the transitions will go in relatively orderly fashion, says Gause. “But at some point it will have to go to the next generation. Some lines of the family will be privileged, and others will be sidelined. That will be tricky.” It opens up the possibility of splits in the family, political mobilization and mass politics – in short the very kind of instability that King Abdullah is currently trying to prevent. It may take a generation or two, but the Arab spring could yet bloom in the Saudi desert.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.