Long Live the King!
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.