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Continuity the theme as new King Salman ascends to Saudi throne

King Salman has already made some changes to Saudi Arabia's leadership, but there will be few shifts in policy

In a matter of hours after the death of King Abdullah had been announced, the whole face of the senior Saudi leadership had changed. With uncustomary speed the ruling family quashed two major controversies over the succession that had raged in social media and among Saudi Arabia analysts for many months.

Crown prince Salman's accession to the throne was a formality. While some believed that his half-brother, deputy crown prince Muqrin might become heir to the throne, the prevailing view appeared to be that Salman might prefer his full brother Ahmed taking that role. It would be, many said, the return to dominance of the Sudeiris, the sons of one of Ibn Saud's favourite wives. 

But this was not to be. The announcement of Abdullah's death included the confirmation of Muqrin as crown prince. But that still left open the question of who would be named as the third in line. The expectation had been that the senior princes would put off taking a decision on that for as long as possible, for it would involve the contentious issue of selecting just one of the half dozen or so contenders for the post.

So Saudis were surprised to hear within hours of the death of Abdullah that their leadership had grasped the nettle and chosen Interior minister Muhammed bin Naif to be deputy crown prince. On his performance as a minister so far he is deemed to be a good choice. He may not be the most popular cabinet member in Saudi Arabia - few people holding the interior portfolio ever are - but he is respected at home and abroad. 

Prince Muhammed's ascent will inevitably mean murmurs of discontent in some royal circles. Prince Ahmed now knows that he will never be king. The sons of Abdullah - in particular prince Mitaib, head of the National Guard - will be disappointed that their late father's strenuous efforts to line them up for early promotion to top jobs came to nothing. There will also be consternation, but little surprise, at the appointment of Muhammed bin Salman to the post of defence minister and head of the royal court. Muhammed, relatively inexperienced, with scant defence background and lacking popularity, is now one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.

One can be sure, though, that the cries of princely disappointment will not be heard outside the confines of the royal palaces. For the ruling family can ill afford to let quarrels in public obstruct the main issue of the day, which is national security. 

King Salman's priority will be to increase surveillance of young Saudis returning from Syria and Iraq imbued with jihadist ideology and intensify efforts by Islamic preachers to warn against the adoption of Islamic State (IS) beliefs. At the same time, border security will be intensified - not least along the common frontier with Yemen. The recent and rapid expansion of the Houthi armed movement - with at least tacit support from Iran - adds to persistent Saudi concern about the threat from Yemen-based al-Qaida groups. 

In general, Salman is expected to consolidate the recent trend in the kingdom of drawing back from regional involvement and concentrating on national defence. While Saudi support for the Syrian opposition will continue, the new king could be more pragmatic than his predecessor in at least considering mooted plans for a transition that could see some members of the Assad regime remaining in power. As for Iraq, the kingdom will remain part of the anti-IS coalition but will not commit troops there.

On the domestic front one should expect few changes. Salman will not try to water down or rescind the reforms introduced during the Abdullah monarchy. But he is not likely to press for more, or try to persuade the religious establishment to make changes to Islamic law that might appease critics of the kingdom's human rights record.

In responding to the other main domestic problems of rising unemployment and soaring public expenditure, Salman will rely on the younger princes, who already head some of the key ministries and provinces, to come up with ideas. But he will know that significant progress in this direction will be impossible while spending on basic subsidies and public services continues to rise. 

Saudi Arabia had plans in place to start lifting subsidies in 2011, but Abdullah put them on hold when Arab Spring protests broke out in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.  Salman is likely to cite the need to deal with the potential threats to the kingdom in deferring further a decision on reductions in public spending.

The aftermath of the death of King Abdullah, in short, has thrown up some surprises in terms of senior appointments. But the initial signs are that Salman's reign will be marked more by continuity than innovation.

See also: Naimi and his policy stay - for now

Gerald Butt is a Middle East analyst

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