The passing of Crown Prince Sultan has the potential either to enhance political progress or to advance the creation of a theocratic state that could make today's Saudi Arabia look like a full-fledged democracy. Both of these possible outcomes will depend on who succeeds King Abdullah and how much power he will have. This is a question being contemplated by Saudis, most critically by the increasingly restless youth, but also by those who support political participation, codified rule of law, and women's and religious minorities' rights. The most daunting fear is the possibility that the Minister of Interior Prince Naif could ascend to the throne, if he can outlive the aging and ailing King Abdullah. To the Saudi people's chagrin, the passing of Crown Prince Sultan and the king's deteriorating health make it more and more likely that Prince Naif will be the next Saudi king despite his unpopularity domestically, regionally, and globally.
Because of looming domestic, regional, and global challenges currently facing the Saudi regime, Naif is considered by King Abdullah and some senior members of the ruling family to be the right man to rule Saudi Arabia after Abdullah. This is thanks to Naif's heavy-handedness; and his strong support for, and affiliation with, the religious establishment -- especially the mentally ill religious police, and his control of the entire Saudi security apparatus. All of this makes Naif the most powerful, envied, loathed, and feared man in the country. In addition, Naif may not face opposition from the international community, even the West, despite the fact that they know he poses real threats to their interests, democratic systems, and national security. Stability in Saudi Arabia, presently the largest oil exporter, supersedes all other considerations: any major disruption in oil production and shipment from that area could create global economic havoc and unmanageable consequences. This situation will continue until a reasonably priced alternative to oil is available.
What is being myopically and dangerously overlooked, not because of ignorance but because of this disconcerting necessity, is that Naif's ascendance to the throne could potentially spawn and expedite that which some Saudi royals and the international community are hoping to avoid -- instability in Saudi Arabia. Prince Naif will be presiding over a fast-changing, more restless society that is less fearful of authority. The majority of the Saudi people, like the rest of the Arabs and others, is yearning for a better alternative to their oppressive regime and its outmoded, unresponsive, and dysfunctional institutions. It is estimated that between 60-70% of the Saudi population are under 30 years of age and that 43.2% for men and women in the 20-24 age category are unemployed. This is a "ticking bomb" that will explode unless long-term, well-paying jobs are created and made available to them; government handouts will not silence them for long.
Further, the Saudi people have more access to each other and to more domestic, regional, and global information than at any time in their history. They are among the most frequent users of the unstoppable social media that they make the most of to vent, pass time, and to discuss social, gender, political, and religious issues that were taboo before the arrival of modern technology. Unless tangible social, political, economic, and religious reforms are implemented, the people will use social media to organize an uprising against the system that is holding them back, despite Western experts' unfounded doubts.
Women of all ages make up some of the most active groups in Saudi Arabia. Many demonstrate in front of Prince Naif's Ministry of Interior on a daily basis to demand the release of their loved ones incarcerated without charges or trials by Naif's police. Some are demanding equal access to education and job opportunities. Some are demanding the removal of the male guardian system and others are demanding the removal of the business manager system (Saudi businesswomen are forced to hire a male to manage their businesses for them.) The most vocal and fearless among Saudi women are those who demand the right to drive. A number of them have gone behind the wheel and have been imprisoned and interrogated, but continue their demands undeterred. Naif does not think much of women. He believes that they should stay home, producing and grooming generations of "good men." He sees women as the property of men, stating, "Any man who accepts his wife or daughter to work as secretaries for other men has lost his manhood."
Even though Naif may be the ruthless prince who can guarantee his family's safety, keep its unruly members in line and maintain the temporary stability of the country through sheer force, he might be the least suitable man to rule Saudi Arabia, especially at this time of restlessness and escalating demands for change. These demands come from a generation of men and women who are disconnected from the world into which Naif and his aging brothers were born, grew up and still live. He will strengthen the religious establishment to intimidate the populace to keep them in check as he has done all his life. A more theocratic and dangerous Saudi Arabia is inevitable under Naif. Ironically, it is the West's need for Saudi money and Saudi oil might people Prince Naif to the Saudi throne.