Saudi Arabia New king veteran in leadership and diplomatic duties

January 24, 2015 2:32 pm

’s new King, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, is a veteran
of the country’s top leadership, versed in diplomacy from nearly 50
years as the Governor of the capital Riyadh and known as a mediator of
disputes within the sprawling royal family.
Salman, 79, had increasingly taken on the duties of the King over the past year as Abdullah became more incapacitated.

Salman was concerned that reforms, especially those regarding women, were moving too fast. Photo / AP

Salman
had served as Defence Minister since 2011 and so was head of the
military as Saudi Arabia joined the United States and other Arab
countries in carrying out airstrikes in Syria in 2014 against Isis
(Islamic State). The kingdom began to see the Sunni militant group as a
threat to its own stability.
He takes the helm at a time when the
ultraconservative Muslim kingdom and oil powerhouse is trying to
navigate social pressures from a burgeoning youth population – over half
the population of 20 million is under 25 – seeking jobs and
increasingly testing boundaries of speech on the internet, where
criticism of the royal family is rife.

Salman’s ascension hands the throne to yet another aging son
of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz al-Saud, who is thought to
have had dozens of sons from multiple wives. He has suffered at least
one stroke that has left him with limited movement on his left arm.
The
Saudi throne has for decades passed between al-Saud’s sons. But each
succession has brought the kingdom closer to a time when the next
generation – al-Saud’s grandsons – will have to take over. Abdullah had
carried out a slow but determined series of reforms aimed at modernising
the country, including increasing education and nudging open the
margins of rights for women. Salman appears to back those reforms, but
he has also voiced concerns about moving too fast.
In a 2007
meeting, he told an outgoing US ambassador that “social and cultural
factors” – even more than religious – mean change has to be introduced
slowly and with sensitivity, noting the power of the multiple tribes in
the kingdom, according to an embassy memo of the meeting leaked by the
WikiLeaks whistleblower site.
He struck the same theme in a 2010
interview with Karen Elliot House, author of On Saudi Arabia: Its
People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines. He told her that while Americans
are unified by democracy, Saudi Arabia is in essence unified by his
family, the al-Sauds. “We can’t have democracy in Saudi Arabia, he said,
because if we did every tribe would be a party and then we would be
like Iraq and would have chaos,” House said.
Salman was one of
the so-called “Sudeiri Seven” – seven sons born to one of Abdulaziz’s
most favoured wives, Hussa bint Ahmad Sudeiri. The seven full-brothers
were seen as a centre of power within the family.
The 2007 US
Embassy memo said Salman “is often the referee in family disputes.” It
pointed to an incident after Abdullah formalised the Allegiance Council,
a body of top royals that is tasked with voting on succession issues
based on merit and not just age. Salman’s eldest living brother,
Abdul-Rahman, was outspoken in his criticism of the arrangement, but
Salman bluntly told his brother to “shut up and get back to work”,
according to the memo.
Salman became the Governor of Riyadh in
1963 and over the next 48 years he oversaw its transformation from an
isolated desert town into a crowded city of skyscrapers, universities
and Western fast-food chains. The post made him well known
internationally.
In discussions with US diplomats in 2007
revealed in several memos, Salman said the key to bringing stability to
the Middle East was to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding
that Israel is “a burden on the US”.
Salman’s sons include Prince
Abdulaziz, the deputy oil minister; Prince Faisal, the Governor of
Medina; and Prince Sultan, the first Arab astronaut and head of the
tourism authority.

The succession

Crown Prince Muqrin
Abdullah
took the unusual step of setting a second-in-line to the throne: Prince
Muqrin. Notably, Muqrin’s nomination as deputy crown prince was
approved by the Allegiance Council — the first time it voted on a
succession issue, setting a precedent for its authority. He won with a
three-quarters majority. Muqrin, who once oversaw the kingdom’s
intelligence agency, is the youngest of Abdulaziz’s sons. Still, he is
69. Miteb
Two in the next generation are
seen as front-runners. One is Miteb, the son of Abdullah, who holds the
powerful post of commander of the National Guard, effectively the King’s
personal force.
Mohammed
The other likely
contender is Interior Minister Prince Mohammed, the son of Abdullah’s
half-brother Nayef. Nayef was a powerhouse in Saudi Arabia for years,
holding the Interior Ministry post and leading security forces in the
fight against Islamic militants. Nayef was elevated to crown prince
under Abdullah but died in 2012. Mohammed later became interior minister
himself.
Faisal
Others may be possibilities. Prince Faisal, the son of Salman, is Governor of Medina, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Mohammed
Another
son of Salman, Prince Mohammed, is believed to be the closest to his
father and head of his royal court, though being only in his 30s could
keep him out of the immediate running.
Khaled bin Bandar
Another
grandson, Prince Khaled bin Bandar, served as deputy defence minister
briefly and was the first of his generation to be Governor of Riyadh. He
is now head of intelligence.
Khaled bin Sultan
Prince
Khaled bin Sultan, whose father was crown prince and Defence Minister
until his death in 2011, also may be in the running. He served nearly 18
months as Deputy Defence Minister but was abruptly removed in 2013 in
what many saw as a sign of Abdullah’s disapproval.

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