The Saudi King Is Dead, Long Live the Kingdom

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has promised to maintain his brother Abdullah’s vision, but the real power may now lie in the hands of Crown Prince Muqrin.

AFP/HO/SPA

“I wanted to find a way to make clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs don’t reject or despise them. But the Arab people do reject what their leadership is now doing to the Palestinians, which is inhumane and oppressive,” is how the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz – when he was still crown prince – defined the reasoning behind the wording of the Saudi Initiative (also now known as the Arab Peace Initiative).

This conversation took place in February 2002 with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a month before Abdullah presented it to the Arab League summit in Beirut. It was an historic breakthrough in Arab policies regarding Israel, and has been inscribed ever since as an inseparable part of a diplomatic solution in all the failed negotiations that accompanied the peace process – like United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 228, and the other UN decisions that remained on paper only.

Three-and-a-half years later Abdullah ascended to the Saudi throne, after being the effective ruler for about a decade due to the debilitating illness of his half-brother, King Fahd. During the 10 years of his rule, Abdullah guided his country’s domestic and foreign policies from within a complex web of internal and international pressures, and turned Saudi Arabia into a country that initiates and leads, and excluded countries like Iraq, Syria and, especially, Egypt from a leadership role in the Middle East.

Continuity pledge

From a country that acted mainly behind the scenes that followed the Arab consensus, Saudi Arabia became a spearhead in the struggle against terror organizations (after its citizens carried out the 9/11 attacks in the United States), led the struggle against Syria’s President Bashar Assad, established the defensive wall against Iranian influence in the Middle East, did not hesitate to cut off relations with Qatar as part of the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood, and participated in the ongoing war against Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). 

This is the legacy Abdullah has left his successor – his brother, Salman, 79, who was sworn in as king on Friday. Salman, who was defense minister and a member of the national security council, undertook in his crowning speech to maintain Abdullah’s policies – which include restraining Iran; a continuation of the oil export policies that have sent global oil prices plummeting; and nurturing the strong connection with the United States, despite disagreements over the nuclear agreement and reconciliation with Iran. These policies also include continued support for Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, alongside the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Within the kingdom, Salman will have to calm the younger generation of princes who have for a long time been jockeying to strengthen their individual statuses, and ensure a quiet inheritance.

Salman previously suffered a stroke, functions only partially and, according to Western reports that have been refuted in Saudi Arabia, suffers from dementia or Parkinson’s disease. This is apparently why even when he was still successor to the throne, his own successor was appointed – Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, whose appointment had many objectors.

Crown Prince Muqrin, 69, formerly head of intelligence and then special adviser to King Abdullah with responsibility for Syria and Afghanistan, is the youngest son of the kingdom’s founder, King Saud.

From now on, the family council, or “Allegiance Council,” that was formed in 2007 and has approved the appointment of successors, will have to decide who will succeed Muqrin and the order of bequeathing. A full-scale war for succession can be expected, but for now a period of political quiet is foreseen.

The current estimation is that Crown Prince Muqran will be the dynamic figure in managing Saudi Arabia’s policies, because he, like King Abdullah, will strive to maintain the checks and balances that have kept the kingdom stable.

This complex task includes maintaining an economic future and appropriate workplaces for the young generation of Saudis who comprise about half the population, while significantly lowering the number of foreign workers. It also means maneuvering between the demands of liberal Saudis by allowing more free speech, letting women drive and expanding the professional fields in which they can work, and the stringent conservative approach of the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect.

King Abdullah succeeded in avoiding revolutionary influences from Arab countries by allocating vast sums to improve wages and build tens of thousands of apartments for the needy. He sent thousands of Saudi students to study abroad, improved state support for the poor, and instructed Muslim preachers to curb religious extremism. However, his promise to allow Saudi women to drive was not carried out, women are still barred from a long list of jobs, and freedom of speech depends on instructions from the royal court.

In these issues lies the enormous gap between Saudi Arabia’s image as a pro-Western state and its real character as a regime that is very far from what is accepted as Western values. However, unlike Egypt – which is regularly censured by the United States because of its regime’s undemocratic practices – Saudi Arabia, which buys American weaponry worth billions of dollars, is exempt from the need for U.S. approval.