DOHA, Qatar — After two years of trying to steer the course of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia is turning inward. The past year has seen the octogenarian King Abdullah usher in a new generation of younger princes to replace rapidly aging and less competent members of the ruling house. Indeed, it's not the ripple effects from the uprisings across the Middle East that occupy the minds of Saudi watchers these days, but the management of the transition from the sons to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, the kingdom's founder.
Change is coming to Saudi Arabia -- but however it plays out, expect some basic truths about the kingdom to remain the same. Saudi Arabia will remain a strong Western ally, it will keep the oil flowing, and -- perhaps most importantly -- it will remain immune from the uprisings that have spread across the Arab world. While former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel made the case that "revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable," the truth of the matter is that for the vast majority of Saudis, a revolt is still an almost unfathomable event. And the House of Saud's approach to succession is designed to keep it that way.
Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the former head of Saudi Arabia's foreign intelligence service -- and at 67, youthful compared to his brothers -- will most likely assume power in the coming years, after his brothers Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman have passed away. Muqrin was appointed second deputy prime minister this month, the traditional post for those third in line for the throne. Whether he becomes king in five months or five years depends on the health of the two men ahead of him.
But that's not all. Perhaps more important than Muqrin's appointment is Abdullah's elevation of competent younger princes to prominent roles within the kingdom. Their promotion is meant to improve governance, while also bolstering the foreign support that will allow Saudi Arabia to continue its domestic reform at its own pace.
Washington, London, and Saudi Arabia's other traditional allies should not be particularly perturbed by this transition. U.S. and British defense guarantees still underpin the kingdom's deterrence posture, particularly given the perceived threat of Iran and its nuclear program. No matter how the succession battle plays out among the younger generation, there is simply no constituency within the House of Saud for undermining the pillars of its foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia may not be the most palatable ally for some in the West. Its treatment of women and minorities leave much to be desired. But those who know the kingdom know that, in all walks of life, the Saudis move slowly but steadily forward -- be it in tendering construction contracts, political reform, or social change.
Reform is coming to Saudi Arabia -- albeit slowly. The appointment in January of 30 women into the Majlis al-Shura, a 150-member consultative council with the power to draft laws, was long overdue -- but nevertheless a huge step forward for the kingdom, particularly coming less than six months after female Saudi athletes were allowed for the first time to compete in the Olympics. Both moves mark a positive step forward for the country, and ones that will have fundamental and permanent effects on Saudi Arabia's social fabric.
They are also not steps that Abdullah undertook lightly. Through sheer force of personality, the aging monarch removed many obstacles in his way: The number of jobless conservative advisors and sheikhs who raised objections to these social reforms are a testament to the king's determination.