Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown

| April 2016

The House of Saud Confronts Its Challenges


This report is based primarily on a month long visit to Saudi Arabia in January, the author’s latest of dozens over the past four decades and conversations—some on the record and many off the record—with a wide range of Saudi citizens, government ministers and senior members of the Al Saud royal family.  Much had changed even since my last visit a year earlier, including the appointment of a new generation of Al Saud leaders with the potential for significant changes in domestic policies and even greater distrust of the U.S., the Kingdom’s longtime protector.

On this visit, a growing number of senior Saudi princes and citizens asked:  Is America’s abdication of leadership in the Middle East permanent or will a new U.S. president once again exert traditional leadership in the region.  With the American presidential election months in the future, it is impossible to know for sure what policy a new president will pursue.

Still, it is clear that the future of Saudi Arabia with a new generation of Al Saud leaders now in charge will be of critical importance to the U.S.  After all, Saudi Arabia is both the lynchpin of global oil supplies upon which Western prosperity depends and a wellspring of the rigid Wahhabi philosophy which motivates some Jihadis hatred of the West.  As a result, U.S. policy makers need to understand the forces at work inside the Kingdom as they seek to formulate U.S. policy for the region.  Defense of Saudi oil and of Israeli democracy long have been primary American interests in the region and must remain so.  The following pages explore significant generational changes in the Al Saud ruling family, domestic challenges to Saudi stability, regional threats to the Kingdom and the future of its now troubled relationship with its U.S. protector.


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For Academic Citation: House, Karen Elliott. “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 2016.