DUBAI: Saudi Arabia is on the brink of major changes. Investors might not immediately notice. The kingdom's oil, foreign or domestic policies are unlikely to be altered after the death of Crown Prince Nayef, a conservative figure who'd only become the heir to the throne eight months ago. But the quick succession pushes the kingdom closer to a potential tipping point.
The death of Nayef - who was interior minister - and the widely expected appointment of Defense Minister Prince Salman, 76, as his successor seem to consolidate the position of reformist-minded King Abdullah, 89. But the aging establishment of the conservative kingdom is unlikely to jump on this opportunity to speed up reform.
Saudi Arabia is now only one succession away, or maybe two, from facing the major challenges that have long built up. After the reign of Abdullah, the kingdom will rely on a largely untested so-called "Allegiance Council" to pick its future rulers. Each branch of the house of Saud will have to vote and agree on a successor. He will come either from the remaining, aging sons of the country's founder, or from the kingdom's many young princes.
The signs of difficulty are already there. It will be tricky for the ruling king to find an interior minister to replace Nayef. A younger prince, even if he was the best for the job, would have to assert his authority over older royals, in a system where seniority typically goes with age. Furthermore, the position of second deputy prime minister has also stood empty since the death of Nayef's predecessor.
Nor is there any guarantee that Abdullah's Allegiance Council or unwritten prudent economic practices will survive for long in the transition to a younger generation. Responsibility for the kingdom's oil and finance ministries currently typically go to someone outside of the royal family, providing extra protection in two areas vital to the stability of the kingdom. But there are no firm rules.
Saudi Arabia demonstrated that it could work its way through a crisis when King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995, leaving de facto power to Abdullah. But the generational shift and the need to keep the kingdom's powerful clerics both in check and on side, puts the country in a delicate position. Each succession pushes Saudi, and investors interested in its destiny, closer to the big unknown.