Saudi Arabia’s aged King Abdullah passed away yesterday, and succeeding him is his half-brother Salman. The oil markets rallied $1 a barrel on the news, which only goes to show how little oil traders understand the local politics. King Salman ibn Abdul Aziz is known as a mediator among the Saudi royal family members, which boasts of 4,000 princes. His health is not great, and at 79, his reign is likely to be short. Given the way Saudi Arabia is governed, the policies and practices will continue as they did under Abdullah.
On the plus side, King Salman is respected throughout the royal family, and therefore, there should be little difficulty with the transition. In addition as governor of Riyadh province for almost half a century, he has experience in governing and has won over the people. “He was known as an arbitrator in royal family disputes, usually between the liberal wings and the conservative wings of the family,” Nasim Chowdhury, a business consultant who lives in Mecca, told the Washington Post. “He’s one of the most popular members of the royal family; people can identify with him.”
During his time as boss of Riyadh, he kept a small jail on the grounds of his official palace where he would detain members of his family who got in trouble with the law. “Who else was going to discipline a prince?” said Robert Lacey, a British author who has written extensively about the Saudi royal family. “Salman has great authority within the family. He is beloved and feared. He is a tall, upright son of the desert.”
Weighing against that is a case of dementia that may well be Alzheimer’s Disease. “He can perform quite well for a few minutes, but then he gets muddled and goes off message,” said Simon Henderson, an authority on Saudi Arabia and succession issues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
There is no doubt that he shows his 79 years physically. In 2010, he came to the US for spinal surgery, and he walks with a cane. He has had at least one stroke, leaving his left arm less functional than his right. Whether he lives another year or another decade is hard to say at this point, but clearly the succession after him is already in the works.
Since Saudi Arabia does not operate on primogeniture, the eldest son of the monarch does not succeed to the throne automatically. Salman has appointed his brother Muqrin as crown prince, his successor. As former head of Saudi intelligence, he may be the real power in the nation for the next several years. Muqrin is 69 years old, and Saudi royal watchers expect he will be the last of his generation to rule. Salman appointed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the country’s Interior Minister, as deputy crown prince. Born in the 1950s, he could well be the first of his generation to rule after Salman. In addition Salman has appointed his own son Mohammed bin Salman as defense minister, Saudi State Television reported. This further cements the next generation in place to take over.
Saudi Arabia’s security situation is not ideal. Its proxy war with Iran is not going particularly well. Earlier this week, the Houthi movement forced the Yemeni government from office. The Houthi are Shi’ites backed by Iran, and the outgoing regime was a friendly Sunni government backed by the Saudis. Moreover, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria offers a challenge among the fundamentalist Sunnis whom the Saudis usually claim as their own.
King Abdullah was a cautious reformer. In 2010, Newsweek wrote “He’s given the go-ahead to modernize schools, has appointed women to high office, and invested in science and technology education and nuclear power initiatives. He’s also proven a stalwart ally against Islamic extremism, delivering a much-applauded speech in Mecca that called on Muslims to embrace ‘the spirit of tolerance, moderation, and balance’.” That same year, Foreign Policy stated, “Those who predicted the Saudi monarch would bring real change to the kingdom had it wrong. His real goal has been to tighten his family’s grip on power.”
The two are not mutually exclusive, and the balancing act they describe probably will fit the policies of King Salman as well.