By Fathima Abdur-Rahman
Those hoping King Salman will bring a new era of reform to Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah are likely to be disappointed.
The House of Saud has been devalued many times: when radical Arab nationalism swept through the Middle East, when the Shah of Iran was dethroned by the mullahs, and as jihadists targeted their suicide-bombs against the kingdom. Yet the sons of Abdel Aziz ibn Saud have overcome all challengers. In maintenance of their harmonious front, last week they staged a smooth transition from King Abdullah, who died on January 23rd, to his half-brother, Salman.
But who is King Salman?
In short, he was governor of Riyadh province for 48 years before becoming Defence Minister in 2011 and Crown Prince a year later. Aged 79, when he came to the throne, he had already taken on the duties of the King as Abdullah’s health faded. After the deaths of the former king, Fahd, and two previous Crown Princes – Sultan and Nayef – Salman was already the most powerful surviving member of this faction. As governor of Riyadh, he oversaw its transformation from an isolated desert town into a crowded city of skyscrapers and Western fast-food chains. As defence minister, he was head of the Saudi military as it joined the US and other Arab countries in air strikes in Syria in 2014 against the Islamic State militant group.
Last week, in the carefully-choreographed transition, Saudi media emphasised the King’s grandiose title of Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines – a reference to Mecca and Medina – to underscore his Muslim credentials as a key element of Saudi legitimacy; perhaps in hope that this hyperbolic epithet will distract the Saudi people from the anti-Islamic idea of a monarch as a whole.
King Salman has been swift as ruler to appoint a number of his own men to senior positions within the Kingdom, seen by analysts as reasserting the power of his tribe within the Royal Family. Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef has been made deputy Crown Prince and Salman’s son, Mohammed, is now the country’s Defence Minister and head of Royal Court. Indeed, King Salman is keeping Saudi affairs firmly within the family
Upon acceding to the throne of Saudi Arabia, King Salman sent out a message via Twitter in which he asked God to help him “maintain security and stability” and “protect the Kingdom from all evils”.
Normally, these remarks are dismissed as routine rhetoric – aimed at securing the Monarchy’s increasingly challenged religious credentials. However with violence in neighbouring Yemen, a turbulent oil market and the threat of ISIS, perhaps they reflect what are likely to be the priorities of the King.
Indeed, some of these challenging priorities have already been given the King’s time. Some of which he has addressed, as follows:
King Salman earlier last week suggested there would be no major change to Saudi Arabia’s direction in countering radicalisation.
In particular, he will continue to deter Saudis from joining up with Islamic State (IS). Hundreds of young Saudis have fought with IS and are returning home inspired by the ideology. The policy of trying to prevent them from rebelling against the Saudi government will be accompanied by an intensified strategy of encouraging Islamic preachers to warn young Saudis of the dangers of signing up to IS beliefs.
It is believed that King Salman is likely to be less inclined than Abdullah in seeking to intervene in the region’s trouble spots. For example, while the Kingdom will continue to support the Syrian opposition it may now look more favourably than in the past on initiatives that include a transitional solution that sees some members of the Assad regime remaining in power.
However, extra forces are likely to be sent to the southern border with Yemen. The recent rapid expansion of the Houthis, allegedly with support from Iran, at the expense of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, is of increasing concern to the kingdom.
In Iraq, King Salman will remain committed to the anti-IS coalition but will also stand by Abdullah’s refusal to commit troops there, with the armed forces said to protect, solely, the country’s borders.
On the domestic front one should not expect major changes, nor should one expect changes in policy that would appease critics of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights performance. King Salman is believed to be less in favour than his predecessor of political and social reform.
The elderly King will not be interested in risking a clash with the powerful establishment by trying to persuade them to agree to such amendments to the law, as would be necessary to make such changes.
Ali Dubaisy from the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, says that despite changes in government he sees little hope for a change of tact towards Human Rights issues under Salman’s rule. “Salman’s mentality will be to protect the power of the royal family,” he said. “If we think Salman will do things differently (to Abdullah) when it comes to Human Rights, then there is no doubt we would be wrong.”
Indeed, unsurprisingly but no less saddening, prospects for future reform beyond the glacial changes under Abdullah remain unlikely.
Salman’s first public remarks as Monarch, even before Abdullah’s burial, were designed to send a reassuring message of stability. “We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” he said in a speech on state TV. He assured his people that he will “never deviate from our constitution”.
Certainly, these remarks would have been music to the ears of many leaders around the world, as the Kingdom’s Oil and Foreign Ministers remain unchanged.
However for many they express a more chilling, sinister prospect: the unrepresentative, repressive and in many ways un-Islamic Kingdom will continue untrammelled, holding tightly to their self-appointed power.
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