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updated: 4/11/2014 5:30 PM

Social challenges as Saudis draw throne's future

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  • Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, left, speaks with Prince Salman, the Saudi King's brother and Riyadh Governor, right, before the King's departure to United States, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

      Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, left, speaks with Prince Salman, the Saudi King's brother and Riyadh Governor, right, before the King's departure to United States, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
    Associated Press/2010

 
Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- While Saudi Arabia's royals work out the succession of the throne behind closed doors, a few voices are raising the most sensitive matter of all in the kingdom, questioning the ruling Al Saud family's claim to absolute power and its unchecked rights to the country's oil wealth.

At least 10 Saudis in the past weeks have posted video statements on YouTube sharply criticizing the royal family and demanding change. At least three of those who appeared in videos have since been arrested, along with seven others connected to the videos, security officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

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It is impossible to know how widespread the sentiments expressed in the videos are among the Saudi public. But the flurry of postings by Saudis is almost unheard-of and startling, given that public criticism of the king is strictly prohibited. It underlines the challenge that Saudi Arabia's rulers have themselves recognized -- that they must address the growing needs of the country's youth, along with demands for transparency, reform and greater public participation in government.

At the same time, the royal family is facing an equally critical question: How to pass the throne to the next generation of Al Saud.

Since Abdulaziz Al Saud founded the kingdom in the 1930s, the throne has been passed down among his sons, of whom he had several dozen by multiple wives. The succession from brother to brother has been relatively smooth for decades. But the time is approaching when the family must decide which brother's son will get the throne next, potentially putting the monarchy into one particular branch at the expense of the others.

King Abdullah, on the throne for nearly a decade, is almost 90 and recently appeared in public with an oxygen tube. His half-brother Prince Salman, in his late 70s, is the crown prince, the designated successor. Abdullah has already outlived two other half-brothers who held the crown prince post.

Two weeks ago, the kingdom took the unusual step of officially declaring the next in line after Salman, naming Prince Muqrin, who at 68 is the youngest of Abdulaziz's sons.

Muqrin, a close aide of Abdullah, was chosen as a transitional figure toward the eventual handing of the torch to the next generation, said Joseph Kechichian, author of several books on the kingdom, including "Succession in Saudi Arabia."

That handover is potentially divisive given the stakes. Analysts say there are more than a dozen princes among Abdulaziz's grandsons from the various branches who could qualify for the throne after Muqrin.

The next monarch will inherit a country where half of the population of 20 million people is under the age of 25, in need of jobs, housing and education. The world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia is fabulously wealthy, but there are deep disparities in wealth and unemployment is growing among the young. The population is expected to mushroom to 45 million people by 2050.

Royals are showing that they are aware of the challenge. This week, Muqrin attended a conference unveiling a state-backed report on the minimum income families need to earn to cover their basic needs. At the conference, he criticized the country's banks for making giant earnings while doing little to help society.

"They're like a saw, they cut on the way in and cut on the way out," he said. "Their contribution is small in comparison to how much they benefit from the citizens and state."

Last month, the governor of Mecca, Prince Mishaal, one of King Abdullah's sons, said in an economic forum that there must be greater youth participation in planning and development.

The string of videos emerged on YouTube just after Muqrin's appointment was announced.

In each, a person talks to a camera, some speaking before a blank background, others in non-descript rooms. In most, the speaker holds up his or her national identity card with the speaker's name and other information, a bold act of defiance to show they are not seeking anonymity. Two of the videos are by women, all wearing all-enveloping black robes and veils over their faces. Most of the speakers are in their 20s or 30s, though some are as old as their 50s. They are from different provinces of Saudi Arabia.

The first video to appear, by a young man who identified himself as Abdulaziz al-Doussari, appears to have inspired the others. In his 30-second video, he says he makes the equivalent of $500 a month -- though he doesn't specify his job -- and says he's fed up with being unable to afford a car, a home or marriage.

"Brother, give us some of the oil wealth you and your sons play with," he blurts out, addressing the king. "Here, here's my name," he adds, holding his ID card to the camera. "Give us some of what's rightfully ours." The video has been viewed more than 1.8 million times.

Al-Dossari is among those subsequently arrested, the security officials said.

In the past, public voices critical of Al Saud rule have been Islamic extremists -- al-Qaida, for example, calls for the monarchy's toppling -- or minority Saudi Shiites protesting for equal treatment. The security officials, however, gave no indication they believed either group was behind the videos. Instead, they accused regional rival Iran but gave no further details.

The speakers in the videos don't express allegiance to any political movement. Some accuse the royal family of corruption, others demand an accounting of its wealth and how much it receives from state coffers. Some do not refer to the kingdom as Saudi Arabia -- named after the Al Saud. Instead, they call it the "land of the two holy mosques," referring to the Prophet Muhammad's mosque in Medina and the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

In his video, Majed el-Asmiri calls for judicial independence, freedom of speech and the dissolution of the intelligence body Prince Muqrin once headed.

"It is obvious ... that the people of the land of the two holy mosques suffer in every way with regards to decisions about public finances and property," he said.

Average Saudis have limited voice in governance. Most senior positions go to the thousands of members of the Al Saud family. A royally appointed Shura Council is the closest thing to a parliament, drawing members from the main tribes and other sectors of society, but it only can advise the king and government.

The ultimate question of who is king lies solely in the royal family's hands. Any internal disputes over succession are kept strictly private, and royals have always rallied almost unanimously over the final choice, conscious that unity is in their interest.

Several years ago, King Abdullah tried to formalize the process by creating a 34-member Allegiance Council comprised of senior male members to decide questions of succession. Its meetings are held in total secrecy.

Former U.S. Ambassador to neighboring Bahrain, Adam Ereli, says the main issue facing any future king will be "accountability".

"Obviously, the new generation is going to have different views on issues of reform and what needs to be done," Ereli said. "I think the rulers of Saudi Arabia recognize they've got to be responsive."

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