With Friends Like These

03/27/2014 07:19 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2014

Stability is both the mantra and the brand of the King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. He is prepared to pay any price to keep it. He will release jihadis from prison to fight in Syria one moment and then reverse the policy by giving them two weeks to return home the next. He is capable of stoking sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia one day, plotting and bankrolling military coups in Egypt the next. He preaches mild reformism at home, while declaring islamists as terrorists abroad.

But what he can't guarantee with these elaborate machinations is stability, either for the Kingdom or for its allies. On the eve of Barack Obama's visit on Friday, the House of Saud was shaken by significant tremors. The king has ordered the allegiance council, the body which secures the transfer of power within the House of Saud, to appoint a successor after the current Crown Prince Salman takes over.

The age, to say nothing of the infirmity, of these men dictates the sensitivity of their appointments. The advanced age of the elite (Abdullah is 90, Salman is 79) virtually ensures a series of destabilising leadership battles to come. Paving the way for the sons of the second generation is therefore crucial. Three of them are in sensitive positions - Prince Saud al Faisal is prime minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is minister of the interior and Prince Meteb, Abdullah's son is minister of the national guard.

Now, Abdullah has issued a decree making Prince Muqrin, who at the age of 68 is the youngest of the line of brothers, Salman's successor. The decree was strangely worded. It started by saying that Salman himself had asked for Muqrin to be his crown prince. But it went on to state that the decree can not be changed by anyone else or interpreted otherwise. The motive for stipulating immutability must be to prevent a successor from changing it.

Nothing was said about Abdullah's son Prince Meteb. At some later stage he is expected to be promoted to second deputy prime minister, a staging post to becoming Muqrin's crown prince.

This line of succession has considerably weakened Salman's position, and possibly extinguished the chances of another half brother Ahmed bin Abdulaziz. The decree is consequently ruffling the feathers of an influential group in the elite. Their anger can be glimpsed in a tweet by Khalid bin Talal, the brother of Alwaleed who is ranked by Forbes as the 26th richest man in the world. He promised to reveal details of the "shameful deals being done" by the king's gatekeeper, with allies at home and abroad. For them, Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the son of the Abdul Aziz al Tuwaijri, has become the Cardinal Richelieu of the old king, and a real hate figure.

All of this impacts on America and Obama. Tuwaijri, Prince Bandar, the intelligence chief who also announced a comeback from "illness" this week and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi are up to their necks in plots and intrigues at home and abroad.

What binds them together is not the fear of Iran, over which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have different policies anyway. Nor is it the civil war in Syria. The UAE still gives shelter to members of Assad's family, while Saudi Arabia is set on regime change. It is the need to keep a lid on Egypt which they correctly identify as the game changer in the Arab world.

Of the three, Bin Zayed has invested all his political assets in sustaining and funding a brutal crackdown in Egypt, surpassing the repressions of Hosni Mubarak, Anwar Sadat and even Gamal Abdel Nasser. This week alone a court in Egypt handed down the largest collective death sentence in the country's history, sentencing 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death in one go. It is to Bin Zayed that Abdel Fatah al-Sisi went after months of vacillation and hesitancy, before resigning as defence minister and declaring his candidacy for the presidency. Obama also met bin Zayed recently.

Five years on from his speech in Cairo University in which he called for a new beginning with the Arab world, Obama does not have a policy either for Egypt or in the Middle East as a whole. He merely has a default position. If America sat on the fence during the Arab Awakening, neither protecting its client dictators from popular wrath, nor standing by the democratic transition which followed, it is now being dragged back off that fence now by its oldest allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Israel.

The US has neither retreated from the Middle East, because it constantly finds itself being sucked back into it. Nor can it ensure a democratic transition from dictatorship. John Kerry, the secretary of state, takes every opportunity to reassure the generals in Egypt that the limited cuts in US military aid announced in the wake of the four massacres in August last year, will be reversed. But either as friend or foe, Kerry is losing leverage over the Egyptian generals. They may soon have their Apache helicopters , with which they can strafe civilian targets in the Sinai, but conversely America will not have bought more influence by providing them.

The perils of reverting to the default position of supporting monarchy and autocracy in the Middle East are easily defined. The Arab world is not the same after the revolutions which shook it to its core and a Middle Eastern policy driven among other things by internal intrigues in the House of Saud, might prove to be woefully short lived.

The House of Saud's real motivation for declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, was an internal report which identified political Islam as the greatest internal threat to the Saudi regime. Why? Precisely because the brotherhood is attempting to reconcile Islam with democracy. The same internal analysis ranked Iran as the third most important threat to the kingdom.

Obama would be ill advised to let himself be dictated to by a regime which compiles this sort of threat assessment. The Saudi monarchy fears democracy, not an alternative interpretation of Islam. Obama might instead remember what he told those students in Cairo five years ago and ponder how far his actions , or lack of them, have betrayed their aspirations.