By Sarah Taylor ’16
This past January King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s king of 20 years, passed away. Replacing him is the aging octogenarian Crown Prince Salman, now King Salman. Before he became king, in the 1980s, Prince Salman, with the help of private Saudi investors, funded the Afghan mujahedeen in the early stages of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. From 1963-2015 he served as governor of Riyad where he saw the city’s population grow from 200,000 to 7 million. There he made a reputation for himself as a clear, effective leader, more-or-less immune to the scandal that plagues his relatives. What remains to be seen is if King Salman, stuck between his country’s religious elite and reformist youth, will maintain his political legitimacy all while bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century.
King Salman is considered to be one of the last capable successors in this generation of Saudi royals. The founder of the modern Saudi state, Abdelaziz Ibn Saud, had 44 legitimate sons. Today Ibn Saud’s sons and many grandsons comprise the Allegiance Council, an organization established by King Abdullah in 2007 to choose the royal line of succession from the complicated web of familial lines. However, thus far the Allegiance Council has only rubber stamped the king’s appointments. As of today, King Salman has appointed Prince Muqrin, the last of Ibn Saud’s son the allegiance council deems capable to rule, as his “first deputy” (the next in line to the throne) and Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, who made his name in the royal family by fighting al-Qaeda, as his second deputy.
The question that remains is who will succeed Salman, who, at the ripe age of 80, has already suffered a stroke and has faced other health complications. Due to the failing health of King Salman, observers of the royal family had predicted that Prince Muqrin would take over power after King Abdullah, so King Salman’s ascension came as a great surprise to political insiders and foreign intellectuals alike.
In a move to consolidate power, a newly anointed Salman removed other potential successors from their positions of power– the governors of Mecca and Riyadh, and the head of Saudi intelligence, among others. He has named his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to two key positions: chief of the royal court and Minister of Defense. This is an enormous amount of power for the Prince, who now has influence over his father’s policy-making, politics, and security. At the age of 34, Prince Mohammed is the youngest Saudi in a decision-making role. Since his immediate family owns the nearly all of Saudi Arabia’s media outlets, Prince Mohammed has sought to portray himself as the leader of the young generation and personally heads multiple philanthropic organizations.
Shortly before he took office, King Salman faced his first foreign policy crisis as the pro-Saudi, pro-Western government in Yemen fell to the anti-Saudi, anti-American Houthi faction. Before relinquishing power, former Yemeni president, Abd Rabdu Mansour Hadi, openly supported American drone strikes in Yemen on Yemen’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Abd Radbu sought Saudi Arabia as its ally in his fight against the Houthi (Shia) minority, which has sought to destabilize its Saudi (Sunni) neighbors to the north in a series of border clashes. The Saudi government, fearing a strengthening of ties between Houthi and Iranian Shias, spent billions of dollars trying to keep the Houthis from coming to power to no avail.
A wary Saudi Arabia now watches as its longtime enemy in Yemen takes control of the Bab El Mandab, the critical straights between Asia and Africa, which are, according to Bruce Riedel, the Director of Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project, “one of the choke points of global energy and geopolitics”.
What does the change in Saudi leadership mean for the U.S.? In all likelihood, King Salman and Prince Muqrin will maintain the status quo. In an effort to preserve Saudi’s stable relationship with the West, he will change neither Saudi Arabia’s pro-U.S. stance, nor its commitment to participation in the global oil markets, nor its antipathy towards Iran.
With the generational shift from the sons of King Saud to his grandsons, however, will come a reevaluation of Saudi’s social and domestic policy. The advent of the 21st century has sought to modernize Saudi Arabia; particularly in the rights it accords to women. From uncensored social media platforms, Saudi men and women have advocated for women’s rights (think the No Woman, No Drive campaign in 2013), for a solution to the rising rates of unemployment for Saudi youth, and for sustainable environmental policies, particularly those regarding access to potable water and sustainable building techniques as Saudi cities push further and further in to the desert. Some reformers have even suggested that the King should not serve as both Prime Minister and king, but that he instead should hand the role over to a trained technocrat.
As young reformists call for much needed change, Saudi religious elites remain dogged in their resistance to, in the words of al-Monitor journalist Thomas Lippman, “any kind of social or political restructuring.” King Salman is stuck between these two disparate groups. Though only two months into his reign, he already has a number of domestic and foreign policy crises on his hands. What remains to be seen is if he will take the slow-and-steady reforming techniques of his predecessor or swing toward the reformist left or religious right in his approach to resolving Saudi’s pressing economic, social, and political woes.
Image source: NBC News