King Salman

Last night it was announced that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had died. He was succeeded by his half brother, Salman.

NPR reports that “Abdullah was born before Saudi Arabia was even a country. It was the early 1920s, and his father, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, set out to conquer the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. In one famous battle, ibn Saud surrounded the capital of a rival tribe. ‘Famously, instead of executing everybody, he invited them to be his guests,’ says Robert Lacey, author of two books on Saudi Arabia. And ibn Saud married one of those guests; Abdullah was a result of this marriage. His father eventually declared the land he’d conquered a kingdom. It remained of little interest to the West until 1938, when an American company discovered vast reserves of oil. After World War II, oil exports soared and Saudi Arabia boomed. Abdullah’s father died in 1953, and his dozens of sons vied for power and influence, but Abdullah did not stand out from the crowd. ‘I can remember when I lived in Saudi Arabia in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Abdullah was a sort of joke,’ Lacey recalls. ‘He was very butch and powerful-looking with his black beard, and then he would open his mouth and out would come this stutter.’ Abdullah later got a speech coach. Unlike the so-called playboy princes, he was known for austerity and toughness”.

The New York Times reports that Abdullah “who came to the throne in old age and earned a reputation as a cautious reformer even as the Arab Spring revolts toppled heads of state and Islamic State militants threatened the Muslim establishment that he represented, died on Friday, according to a statement on state television. He was 90. The Royal Court said in a statement broadcast across the kingdom that the king had died early Friday. The royal court did not disclose the exact cause of death. An announcement quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency said the king had a lung infection when he was admitted on Dec. 31 to a Riyadh hospital. The king’s death adds yet another element of uncertainty in a region already overwhelmed by crises and as Saudi Arabia is itself in a struggle with Iran for regional dominance. The royal family moved quickly to assure a smooth transition of power in a nation that is a close ally of the United States, the world’s largest exporter of oil and the religious center of the Islamic faith. In a televised statement, Abdullah’s brother, Crown Prince Salman, announced that the king had died and that he had assumed the throne”.

The report goes on to note “Abdullah became, in some ways, a force of moderation. He contested Al Qaeda’s militant interpretations of the faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded. But he was also mindful that his family had, since the 18th century, derived its authority from an alliance with the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. He accordingly made only modest changes to the kingdom’s conservative clerical establishment. When Islamic State forces conquered vast stretches of Syria and Iraq, imposing a creed linked to Saudi Arabia’s own, the kingdom was slow to respond. However, Abdullah chastised senior clerics for not speaking out more forcibly against the jihadists, and he eventually sent Saudi pilots to participate in an American-led campaign against the Islamic State. Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia had hurtled from tribal pastoralism to advanced capitalism in little more than a generation. The fundamentalist clerics who gave the family legitimacy remained a powerful force. Women who appeared in public without the required covering risked arrest or a beating from the religious police. Abdullah did make changes that were seen as important in the Saudi context. He allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers and appointed a woman as a deputy minister. At the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself, women study beside men.

It adds “However, he did not fulfill a promise made to Barbara Walters of ABC News in his first televised interview as king in October 2005: that he would allow women to drive, a hugely contentious issue in Saudi Arabia. Although he ordered the kingdom’s first elections for municipal councils in 2005, a promised second election, in October 2009, in which women would vote, was postponed until September 2011. Then in March of that year, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs announced that the question of women voting would be put off indefinitely “because of the kingdom’s social customs.” Abdullah’s greatest legacy, however, may prove to be a scholarship program that sent tens of thousands of young Saudi men and women abroad to study at Western universities and colleges. It has been suggested that the changes long resisted by conservative forces — resistance that even a king could not overcome — would one day come about as those men and women rose in the government, industry and academia. Perhaps Abdullah’s most daunting challenge arrived in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The royal family at first railed at what it called a vicious smear campaign against the kingdom, then ruthlessly suppressed known militants — not least because the monarchy itself was a main target of Al Qaeda. Striking a balance was almost always Abdullah’s preference. He strove to keep oil prices high, but not so high that they prompted consumers to abandon petroleum, then hedged his bets by investing billions in solar energy research. In 2008, he convened a meeting of world religious leaders to promote tolerance, but held it in Madrid rather than Saudi Arabia, where the public practice of religions other than Islam is outlawed. Yet Abdullah could, and did, take strong positions. He denounced the American-led invasion of Iraq as “an illegal occupation”; proposed a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East that included recognition of Israel by Arab nations; and urged in a secret cable that the United States attack Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival. “Cut off the head off the snake,” he said. His kingdom’s interests always came first. Although American companies discovered and developed the Saudi oil fields, he cut deals with Russian, Chinese and European petroleum companies. He made it clear that the world’s energy appetites mattered less than Saudi Arabia’s future”.

In a related article from Foreign Policy it argues incorrectly that there will be disruption. The writer argues “The king’s death comes at a delicate time for the oil-rich kingdom, which is struggling with the impact of plunging oil prices domestically, the rise of the Islamic State, and an Iran’s whose influence is growing across the Mideast as its proxies take on increasingly powerful roles in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Abdullah’s successor will also face an intensifying crisis in Yemen, whose Saudi-backed government has been effectively overthrown by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. A Saudi official said in a recent interview that Riyadh sees the future of Yemen as ‘an existential threat.'”

Yet the reason it is “struggling” with the low price of oil is largely as a result of the choice of the Saudi government. It is either an attempt to weaken Iran or perhaps a decision to try to undermine US shale. Meanwhile, the problems  faced by King Salman will be the same today as tomorrow, so could not be said to be overly disrtuptive. Of course they could become so if they are not dealt with in the correct way.

This message of continuity was underlined in comments by the new King when in a report mentions that “Hours after the death of Saudi Arabia’s ruler, his successor, King Salman, moved quickly on Friday to project a sense of continuity, saying in a televised address that the oil-rich nation, a Western ally that has long played a dominant role in Arab politics, would not change course. “We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” Salman, the former crown prince, declared. Salman was speaking as leaders from the Muslim world converged in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for the funeral of Abdullah, his brother. Abdullah steered his deeply conservative land through the turmoil of the Arab Spring and was caught up in the region’s seething rivalries before his death early Friday at 90. In his address, Salman seemed to acknowledge the tensions that have gripped the region, playing out in Syria’s civil war and the consequent rise of the militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL”.

Interestingly the piece ends “Despite the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Tehran said Friday that its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would attend an official memorial service for Abdullah. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also expressed “condolences to the government and people of Saudi Arabia.” The rivalry between the two countries is one of the region’s principle fault lines. It is in part a geopolitical struggle between nations that see themselves as the regional superpower and the leader of the Islamic world. But it also reflects the broader division between Shiites, who govern in Iran, and Sunnis, such as those who dominate in Saudi Arabia”.

Relatedly, Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin  has become Crown Prince. There was some talk that he would not transfer to the role of full Crown Prince due to his mother’s heritage. Muqrin, 69, should become king himself in the not too distant future as King Salman is not in good health.

However, in what may the end to the Saudi succession crisis, “Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a close friend of the United States and a scourge of Islamist militants, will be the country’s first king from the third generation of its ruling dynasty. King Salman moved swiftly to appoint Mohammed Deputy Crown Prince on Friday, hours after he took the throne following the death of King Abdullah. The decision appeared to settle for many years to come tough decisions over the kingdom’s future succession. By sending an assassin to try to kill Prince Mohammed when he was Saudi security chief in 2009, al Qaeda paid him the compliment of treating him as one of its most dangerous enemies”.

It goes on to mention that “The 55-year-old is now firmly established as the most powerful member of his generation in the ruling al-Saud family, and even before he becomes king will be one of the most important figures in the world’s top oil exporter”.

Interestingly the article adds that “Diplomats and Saudi analysts and academics are uncertain what positions he holds on the big long-term issue facing the kingdom: reconciling social change and a young population with conservative traditions and an oil-dependent economy”.





4 Responses to “King Salman”

  1. A Saudi palace coup | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] but name. Salman moved swiftly to undo the work of his half-brother. He decided not to change his crown prince Muqren, who was picked by King Abdullah for him, but he may choose to deal with him later. However, he […]

  2. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] to “further strengthen our security cooperation.” He also said that he had already called King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional antagonist, to explain the agreement — moving even quicker to speak to […]

  3. The disintegration of Saudi Arabia? | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] calling on them to stage a palace coup against King Salman. The letters allege that Salman, who ascended to the throne in January, and his powerful 30-something son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman […]

  4. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] Kinnemont has written the Saudi foreign policy is in a state of flux, “The accession of King Salman a year ago and the decision to lead a military intervention in Yemen mark a new phase for Saudi […]

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