King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud:  Abdullah assumed the throne in early August 2005, having overseen the day-to-day affairs of government for a decade owing to King Fahd’s poor health.  Abdullah favors a strategy of gradual political and economic modernization that is sensitive to the conservatism of much of the population.  Although personally popular, the monarch possesses a weak power base within the royal family, a factor that will limit his ability to pursue any radical departures from the moderate policy course set by his predecessor during his reign.

Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud:  The long-time interior minister was unexpectedly appointed to the post of second deputy prime minister in late March 2009, a promotion that gives him a leg up on the competition to replace Sultan, who is reportedly dying of cancer, as crown prince, and, eventually, to become king.  Much of the evidence suggests that Nayef has less enthusiasm for domestic reform than Abdullah (or Sultan), but that the difference is largely one of degree.  Likewise, although Nayef’s unabashed sympathy for the cause of Palestinian statehood (and for militant groups such as Hamas) would likely complicate both bilateral relations with Israel and the broader regional peace process, his hawkish stance toward Iran represents an important point of common ground with both Israel and the US.

Grandsons of Abdul Aziz Al-Saud:  A new system for establishing royal succession that is to take effect when the next king assumes the throne makes it possible that a member of the next generation of the royal family might leapfrog his elders into the position of crown prince, although such a move would create potentially dangerous tensions within the family, and is unlikely to be made until the new system has clearly won acceptance.

Technocrats:  Although often not members of the royal family, these well-educated modernizers are responsible for setting economic policy, and who hold liberal economic views and are sympathetic to international business.  They head several key Saudi ministries, including the Ministry of Finance and National Economy and the Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals.

Merchant Elite:  The major merchant families’ support of the Al-Saud dynasty is essential during times of economic crisis and war.  Many hold assets almost as substantial as those of the princes.  Several merchant families are coming under the control of a second generation of managers, resulting in further decentralization and diversification.  Instead of relying primarily on imports, these managers are becoming interested in import substitution schemes, most notably in food processing and pharmaceuticals.