A Smooth Succession
The admission of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to hospital in Riyadh in late December 2014, at the age of 91, gave rise to a swirl of reports in the foreign press on the path the Kingdom would take following his death.
Some of Western media reports spoke of possible revolts and coups within the ruling royal family. With much of the region and the Arab world embroiled in violent chaos, internal turmoil would be disastrous for the world’s economies.
Immediately after King Abdullah’s death and with the succession of King Salman, who had been the crown prince, such palace intrigues were laid to rest. In one of his earliest broadcasts as ruler, King Salman vowed to continue the work of his predecessor and the vision of the country’s founder and first king, Abdul Aziz Al Saud. He was emphatic about preserving continuity.
However, that did not mean that nothing was to be changed at all. King Salman, within the first week, issued 30 new decrees that covered necessary reorganization within the government. He also replaced several ministers, mostly loyalists of late King Abdullah, with fresher and younger technocrats, a move that was well received by most Saudis. He appointed Prince Muqrin, the second deputy prime minister—de facto deputy crown prince—as crown prince, his eventual successor, and elevated Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, the minister of interior, to the rank of second deputy premier. By doing so, he immediately settled one of the most pressing questions of his rule: who would be the next king, and, crucially, who would be king after that. Prince Muhammad’s appointment was particularly significant, as Muhammad becomes the first grandson of King Abdul Aziz in line for the Saudi throne.
One of his most striking appointments was the introduction of his son Muhammad (born in 1980), very young by Saudi standards, into a position of authority as minister of defence, his personal adviser, and the head of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA), a new government authority that ramrods the socio-economic development of the country, from health care to education to a myriad of other socio-economic affairs. Some foreign analysts speculated about a possible future power struggle between Muhammad bin Salman and Muhammad bin Nayef.
While the ministers of interior, foreign affairs, petroleum and mineral resources, finance, and National Guard retained their positions, others were shuffled or replaced. Two sons of the late king were fired as governors of Riyadh and Mecca. Prince Khaled al-Faisal returned to Mecca as governor, following a brief stint as minister of education; he will also act as advisor to the king. Prince Faisal Bin Bandar was given the post of the governor of Riyadh. Prince Khalid Bin Bandar, chief of general intelligence, has been replaced by General Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdullah.
The education-policy committee, the council of civil service and ten other councils were closed down, and two new councils, one for political and security affairs and another for economic and development affairs (headed by Muhammad bin Salman) were established. The ministries of education and higher education were merged.
In April 2015, the long-serving foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, was replaced by a non-royal (ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubeir), a first for such a key position. In addition, King Salman changed the line of succession by replacing Prince Muqrin with Muhammad bin Nayef as crown prince and named his son Muhammad, now the Minister of Defence, as deputy crown prince.
A New Wind
In his first social-media message, King Salman, the new Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, tweeted “Dear people, you deserve more, and whatever I do, I cannot give you what you deserve.” This followed several royal decrees ordering a massive new expenditure of $29.3 billion, including payments of two months’ bonus salary to all Saudi state employees, as well as other subsidies. Students and people with special needs and those receiving monthly welfare subsidies from the state also benefited from a bonus payment equivalent to two months of their usual income. Also included in the handouts was $5.3 billion pledged in subsidies for electricity, water, and housing. And, in a commitment to the arts, King Salman pledged SR10 million ($267,000) for every literary club in the Kingdom.
One analyst predicted that, “King Salman would likely continue his predecessor’s policy of gradual reform, which included curbing the power of the religious establishment and easing restrictions on women, who are still barred from driving cars. The direction is to go for more reform, not less. The environment has changed. You have social media, and nobody can control any society now. And I think this is understood by the leadership.” Later however, there were signs of a more conservative orientation.
The public seemingly generally appreciates the royal transition of power. The unending chaos of the Arab Spring has only reinforced the determination of most Saudis to continue to take advantage of the stability and security they enjoy at home.
War in Yemen
The new leadership soon started a new, dangerous adventure: military intervention in its neighbour Yemen.
On 25 March 2015 Saudi Arabia embarked on a war against the Shiite Houthis and allied forces of the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had taken over much of the country in the previous months. The young prince Muhammad, now the Defence Minister, spearheaded the loose coalition of some Gulf states and other mainly Arab states. The aim was officially to bring back to Yemen president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had fled the country in February, and to force the Houthis to withdraw their forces to their home region in northern Yemen. In private circles, it was said that one reason for the ouster of the previous foreign minister, with over five decades in the post, was his objection to the use of military force. He is thought to have favoured negotiations.
This was a first for Saudis, seeing their forces taking a leading role in a confrontation with other forces. While the Saudis had indeed sent some forces into the neighbouring island of Bahrain in 2011, it was to help quell protests by the Shiite pro-democracy movement against the Sunni ruling family. This was different. The Saudis carried out daily bombing missions on Houthi and allied targets in Yemen but were hesitant to expose their largely inexperienced forces to ground combat against a seasoned opponent in difficult terrain. Several months on, it gradually became apparent to most analysts that the coalition was not achieving its goals. However, to admit that would immediately stain the new career of the new Saudi defence minister. And so, instead, the bombing continued.
Other allies the Saudis approached for support in the fight were hesitant to commit their troops to ground combat against the Yemenis. The Pakistanis, whom the Saudis had first approached and from whom they were sure of getting help, turned them down and instead offered their unflinching support in defending the Kingdom, were it to be invaded.
The Saudi media continued to portray the coalition’s role in Yemen as a necessary deterrent to expanding Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. A Gulf-based diplomat commenting on the Saudi-inspired airstrikes said, “You have to remember the situation in April. Without strikes, the Houthis would be everywhere. The Iranians would be more present than ever before. Right or wrong, this was their feeling.” He added that little had been achieved, that most senior Saudi figures now accepted that the military campaign could accomplish little more, and that serious negotiations with all Yemeni parties, including the Houthis, should start. Indeed, peace talks were launched in Geneva on 15 June, but, for the time being, with little hope of progress.
Others were not so kind. Human rights groups are upset by the alleged use of cluster bombs against civilians in Yemen and the death of thousands of civilians both in the bombings and in violence by Houthi rebels. While most nations have remained quiet concerning the coalition’s strikes, many are privately concerned.
At the same time, bombings of Shiite mosques in the Eastern Province in May claimed by the Sunni extremist Islamic State exposed the extreme rhetoric being broadcast by many Saudi Sunni clerics. The government warned of severe action against clerics fostering dissent between people of different faiths. The public was suddenly aware of a rising menace within their midst, and many joined hands with their Shiite brethren against these criminals.
The public by and large remained satisfied with a new leadership that has sacked government officials for non-performance or abuse of their positions. The public was further buoyed when the king publicly censured one of his own family and barred him from attending any soccer games, following an incident. They were elated when the king recently stated that no one was above the law, including himself. He said that citizens of the Kingdom could file a lawsuit against the king, the crown prince, or any member of the royal family if they felt wronged, unlike in many other countries, where the heads of state have immunity.
Such statements are music to the ears of most Saudis, some three-quarters of whom are said to be under the age of 25 and who are concerned with their daily bread. While it is too early to assess the value of the changes and forthcoming statements, the young population remains content that the Kingdom is in good hands domestically.