In November 2010, the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, traveled to the United States for medical treatment, touching off rounds of fevered speculation about the prospects for succession in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz's own frail health and recent convalescence in Morocco gave the speculation further life. Of course, due to the royal family's opaque approach to the issue, discussions of the internal rivalries that are reputed to divide the royal family are often based on mere conjecture. With little concrete information upon which to ground analysis, each decision of the royal family is then understood as a reflection of internal power-balancing arrangements.
Nevertheless, following apparently successful medical treatment and three months of convalescence, Abdullah returned home to a region that had undergone seismic changes, calling into question many of the assumptions about the Arab world and Saudi Arabia that had framed policy analysis and formulation as recently as the time of his departure. With protests spreading to previously quiescent corners of the region, an arc of political agitation now encircles Saudi Arabia, with incipient signs of internal ferment.
The fall of longtime autocratic rulers in Tunisia and then Egypt, and the possible collapse of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, has made clear that the current uprisings will have long-term effects on the Arab political order and the regional balance of power. The ever-present questions regarding succession in Saudi Arabia are now bound up with the broader calls for revolutionary change and political reform that are reshaping the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has withstood regional turmoil for decades, but will now face growing calls for reform at home. The looming decisions on succession will likely come at a time of continued and heightened volatility, as the emerging political awakening in the region has now begun to reach even Saudi society.