King Abdullah’s successor has pledged to make ‘continuity’ in the oil-rich kingdom a priority, writes Salah Nasrawi
“I beg the Almighty God to help me to serve you and to bestow security and stability on our country and nation and to protect them from any harm and evil,” declared Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, in his first address to his people following his accession to the throne of the world’s largest oil exporter.
In the few hours before the new king received the crown and made his televised inauguration speech, Salman, 80, hurried to put Saudi Arabia’s royal house in order by swiftly defining the line of succession following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah, 91, on Friday.
While the move suggested that Salman was trying to show that he is in charge, it reflected the growing anxiety about the kingdom’s biggest dynastic challenge since it was established by Abdullah and Salman’s father, Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, in 1932.
By upholding a decision by Abdullah to name his youngest half-brother Mugrin, 69, as crown prince and by appointing nephew Mohamed bin Nayef, 55, as deputy crown prince, Salman has tried to quell speculation about internal power struggles within the royal circle.
Abdullah named Mugrin as Salman’s successor in 2013, in what was an unprecedented move in Saudi leadership turnover. Under Saudi law, the Allegiance Council — a committee made up of of the most senior Al-Saud princes, set up by Abdullah in 2006 — is in charge of appointing the future king and ensuring a smooth succession.
Still, it was the designation of Mohamed as heir to the heir apparent that raised more eyebrows and shifted the focus to internal palace rifts in Riyadh’s precarious power transfer and its implications for both the kingdom and the region.
Speculation was high that the appointment of Mugrin was designed to pave the way for Abdullah’s eldest son, Prince Mitab, to become a crown prince after Mugrin. Abdullah was believed to have been grooming Mitab and his appointment to minister of the National Guard in 2013, making him a member of the cabinet, was meant to bring him closer to the succession.
Abdullah also named another one of his sons a deputy foreign minister, and two other sons as provincial governors of the capital Riyadh and the holy city of Mecca respectively, a move seen as an attempt to enable his clan to consolidate its grip on power after his death.
Abdullah’s promotion of his sons was also seen as part of a dynamic to ensure transition to suitable candidates in the next generation of Al-Saud and the kingdom’s future political evolution. Its aim, experts argue, was to avoid a succession struggle among dozens, and probably hundreds, of aspirants to the throne among Abdel-Aziz’s grandsons and great-grandsons.
But even with a smooth succession after Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s transition remains contentious, with bloggers and commentators casting doubt over a long-term royal family accord. Most concentrated on the generational problem of succession confronting Saudi Arabia as the prolonged hold of Abdul Aziz’s sons comes to an end.
Some influential royal family members, like Prince Al-Walid bin Talal, an Abdul-Aziz grandson, have already shown signs of dissent. On 23 January, the multi-millionaire prince and business tycoon tweeted: “I have made my allegiance to father Salman bin Abdul-Aziz and father Mugrin bin Abdel-Aziz and congratulated my brother Mohamed bin Nayef.”
With all the potential discord that could follow the transition to the second generation of Al-Saud, King Abdullah’s successors are expected to face daunting challenges at home.
Among their biggest tasks, analysts say, are determining when and whether the kingdom will introduce political, economic and social reforms. For years, Saudis have been urging their government to initiate change, including opening opportunities for political participation.
Liberal-minded reformers have been demanding reform of the political system to initiate a constitutional monarchy and establish an elected parliament, instead of the consultative 120-member appointed Shura Council.
Saudis hope Abdullah’s successors will be able to solve these and other concerns, such as human rights issues and the role of the conservative religious establishment, and relinquish the long-held view that stability is the guarantor of security and peace for the kingdom.
Today, among the key challenges the kingdom faces is the fall in oil revenues that form the bulwark of its state budget. A prospected deficit of $39 billion in this year’s budget has forced the government to cut spending.
Though the government has said the deficit will be covered by its huge foreign reserves, the revenue plunge will force Saudi Arabia to cut back on salaries, wages and allowances, which make up about half of budgeted expenditures.
Externally, with the Middle East and the Arab Gulf region in turmoil, Abdullah’s successors will find their country at the centre of enormous regional conflicts. They will be challenged by a whole range of geopolitical developments.
One of Saudi Arabia’s biggest headaches is Persian-Shia Iran. With its ambitious nuclear programme, its patronage of Shia communities and spreading influence, Iran is emerging as a regional superpower in a clash with Arab-Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
With a substantial Shia minority in the Saudi eastern province and on the southern border with Yemen, the new leadership will remain jittery about the effect of Iran’s regional rise as an emerging Shia power on Saudi Arabia’s Shia community.
Also, fear that Washington may reach a détente with Tehran following an agreement over its nuclear programme has created a rift between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Inevitably, the new leadership in Riyadh has to deal with many Middle East crises, which have so far left the Saudi regional power off-balance, largely because of their overwhelming nature and the new regional order they have launched.
In Yemen, Abdullah’s successors are facing an escalating disaster as Shia Houthis assume control. With a civil war looming large in the country, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour is turning into a thorn in its side.
In Iraq and Syria, the kingdom also faces difficult dilemmas. Islamic State (IS) militants are digging their feet into both countries close to northern borders, despite the war waged by the US-led international coalition to degrade the group.
Neighbouring Bahrain, dependent on generous Saudi aid and security assistance, is facing a relentless Shia uprising. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s vehement support for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s political and economic programme remains vital to the region’s security and peace.
Despite good relations with other partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Riyadh’s new rulers will face a daunting challenge from Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which are either showing independent foreign policy tendencies or increasing their regional power at Saudi Arabia’s expense.
Saudi Arabia’s political system has demonstrated a surprising resilience and stability in the past, but with many of its neighbours on fire, the country seems in need of more than simply the prayers of its new monarch to maintain its stability.
This article appeared first in Al-Ahram Weekly on Jan 29, 2015