Long Live the King!

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By S. M. Hali

King Ab­dul­lah is dead; long live King Sal­man bin Ab­dul Aziz! That is how the Bri­tish would have treated the mat­ter but Saudi royal suc­ces­sion is much more com­pli­cated.

Ab­du­laziz, the founder of the House of Saud had nu­mer­ous wives from dif­fer­ent tribes and 45 sons from them. De­spite the Saudi so­ci­ety’s male chau­vin­ism, the ma­tri­archs have had a strong say in mat­ters of suc­ces­sion. Has­san of the Su­dairi tribe was the most pow­er­ful of the wives of Ab­du­laziz and bore him seven sons, known as the Su­dairi Seven (Fahd, Sultan, Ab­dul Rah­man, Nayef, Turki, Sal­man and Ahmed). Sal­man ac­quired king­ship be­cause his two el­der broth­ers, Sultan and Naif (also Su­dairis) ex­pired be­fore the demise of King Ab­dul­lah.

Sal­man served as the Gover­nor of Riyadh for 48 years (1963-2011). This writer, while serv­ing as Air and Naval at­taché at the Em­bassy of Pak­istan in Riyadh (1991-95), had the honor of meet­ing him on sev­eral oc­ca­sions while he was gover­nor. Sal­man was ap­pointed as De­fense Min­is­ter in 2011, nom­i­nated as Crown Prince in 2012 and as­cended to the throne of the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia (KSA) on Jan­uary 23, 2015.

Ini­tially, Sal­man let mat­ters set­tle down but fol­low­ing the Houthi upris­ing in neigh­bour­ing Ye­men, he got the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to as­sert him­self, reshuf­fle not only his cab­i­net but also reap­point his suc­ces­sors. The first ca­su­alty in April 2015 was his half brother, Crown Prince Muqrin, who was re­placed by his nephew, In­te­rior Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad bin Nayef, 55, as new heir-pre­sump­tive, while his son Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man, 30, was ap­pointed as sec­ond in line to rule. This paved the way for the third gen­er­a­tion in the House of Saud to stake a claim to the throne. More im­por­tantly, the Su­dairi tribe has been firmly en­trenched. The sec­ond ca­su­alty was the very ca­pa­ble son of Shah Faisal, Prince Saud Al Faisal, KSA’s For­eign Min­is­ter for over forty years.

Sal­man, who as De­fence Min­is­ter had over­seen the mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Bahrain in April 2012, con­sol­i­dated the po­si­tion of KSA by call­ing upon the Arab League to en­dorse air strikes against the Houthis in Ye­men. Since March 25, 2015 the Arab coali­tion has been pound­ing Ye­men in­ces­santly with short pauses for hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance.

KSA faces a num­ber of chal­lenges, in­clud­ing cre­at­ing mil­lions of jobs for its mostly young pop­u­la­tion, low oil prices that have forced the coun­try to dig into its fi­nan­cial re­serves and se­cu­rity threats both in­ter­nally from ter­ror­ist groups and ex­ter­nally along its borders with Iraq and Ye­men. Ex­ter­nally, Sal­man has played his cards shrewdly. While he main­tained the 100 year old tra­di­tional re­la­tions with the USA, he has as­tutely guided af­fairs in such a man­ner that KSA does not ap­pear to be play­ing sec­ond fid­dle. Take the case of the US led P5+1 frame­work nu­clear agree­ment with Iran. Sal­man has made it clear that the peace of­fer of the Oc­ci­dent to­wards Iran and the re­moval of sanc­tions al­low­ing Iran to re­assert its fi­nan­cial po­si­tion and per­haps sup­port more in­sur­gency is ab­hor­rent to the King­dom. How­ever, in­stead of be­ing sin­gled out as the con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor, he has taken the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) on board and en bloc they pres­sur­ized the USA.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama made the his­toric de­ci­sion of invit­ing the GCC heads of State to at­tend a sum­mit at Camp David. US For­eign Sec­re­tary John Kerry vis­ited var­i­ous cap­i­tals to ex­tend in­vi­ta­tions per­son­ally. King Sal­man wel­comed the in­vi­ta­tion, but at the nick of time sig­naled that he would not be at­tend­ing since he had more press­ing en­gage­ments vis-à-vis the tem­po­rary pause in the airstrikes against the Houthis in Ye­men. Prima fa­cie this could be ac­cepted as a plau­si­ble jus­ti­fi­ca­tion but an­a­lysts cog­nizant of Arab diplo­matic nu­ances will rec­og­nize it as a de­lib­er­ate snub to the US in­di­cat­ing Sal­man’s anath­ema to Obama’s over­tures to Iran. Yet, si­mul­ta­ne­ously pro­vid­ing some slack, he sent the two crown princes to at­tend the sum­mit. Other GCC coun­tries fol­lowed suit and of the six-mem­ber coun­cil, four monar­chs ab­stained, dis­patch­ing ju­nior rep­re­sen­ta­tives. To mel­low the slight, the US was dan­gled the car­rot of a 100 bil­lion dol­lar de­fence deal, 90 of it com­ing from KSA alone. The GCC, dis­pleased with the frame­work agree­ment with Iran, re­quested for re­scind­ing it and also asked the US to en­ter a strate­gic pact with the Gulf coun­tries a la Is­rael i.e. the US will be obliged to come to their as­sis­tance in case of at­tack by a third coun­try.

In­ter­est­ingly, in a coun­ter­poise, the Oc­ci­dent has struck back. Lon­don’s Sun­day Times leaked a story quot­ing US of­fi­cials that KSA will join the nu­clear club by buy­ing “off the shelf” atomic weapons from Pak­istan. The story goes on to claim that the Saudis — who fi­nanced much of Pak­istan’s nuke pro­gram — are fear­ful of in­ter­na­tional ef­forts to keep its en­emy Iran from ac­quir­ing a bomb, The Saudis think the deal, backed by Pres­i­dent Obama, will ac­tu­ally ac­cel­er­ate Iran’s nuke push. The Lon­don pub­li­ca­tion quotes a for­mer US De­fence of­fi­cial say­ing that Saudi Ara­bia has talked for years about ac­quir­ing a bomb from the Pak­ista­nis. “The House of Saud has now made the strate­gic de­ci­sion to move for­ward.” The story as­serts that it is pay­back time for Pak­istan and ac­cord­ing to a covert deal, Pak­istan will be obliged to pro­vide nukes to KSA.

The Pak­istani For­eign Of­fice has re­futed the story. The tim­ing is of in­ter­est since in its bid to garner re­gional sup­port for check­ing the Houthis’ as­cen­sion in Ye­men, which KSA claims have Ira­nian back­ing, Sal­man had di­rectly asked Pak­istan to send its sol­diers, war­ships and fighter air­craft to sup­port its oper­a­tions in Ye­men. Sal­man’s re­quest was not ac­ceded to by Pak­istan’s par­lia­ment af­ter a long de­bate although Pak­istani po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­ers per­son­ally called on King Sal­man to as­sure him of Pak­istan’s whole­hearted mil­i­tary sup­port in case the sovereignty of KSA was threat­ened. The ve­rac­ity of the story on the al­leged KSA-Pak nuke con­nec­tion re­mains to be proved.

One thing is cer­tain that af­ter King Ab­dul­lah, who was re­garded as a peo­ple’s king, and was loved for his gen­eros­ity, piety and phil­an­thropic work, Sal­man will have a tough act to fol­low. His as­ser­tion of the Su­dairi clan’s claims to rule may have a back­lash with other Saudi tribes. KSA re­mains en­trenched in its back­door tribal jostling for supremacy. One thing which goes in Sal­man’s favour is that dur­ing his nearly five decades long stint as the Gover­nor of Riyadh, he trans­formed it from a mid-sized town into a ma­jor me­trop­o­lis. He now has the op­por­tu­nity to re­peat his per­for­mance for the whole of KSA.

Sal­man is con­ser­va­tive and holds tra­di­tional views with re­gard to po­lit­i­cal re­forms and so­cial change. It is widely ex­pected that the media savvy Saudi king, whose fam­ily owns a media group in­clud­ing the pan-Arab publi­ca­tions Asharq Al-Awsat and Al Eq­tasa­diah, will con­tinue the poli­cies of his pre­de­ces­sor, who liked to be known as a mod­ern­izer but also over­saw a regime that was crit­i­cized by the West for its hu­man rights record. Sal­man’s per­sonal re­la­tions with most of the world lead­ers are likely to have a pos­i­tive ef­fect and de­spite health is­sues, the sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian may yet emerge as a just but as­sertive monarch. I wish him well!

Sal­man will have a tough act to fol­low af­ter king Ab­dul­lah, who was re­garded as the peo­ple’s king.

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