King Salman, the new Saudi monarch, took over only three months ago but has moved with surprising speed to introduce sweeping changes in the power structure of the country. The most notable change is the placement of a younger generation of princes in the position of the highest responsibility. This is a clear break from tradition.
Since the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz, died in 1953, his successors have always been among his numerous sons from different wives, brother succeeding brother in the order of seniority. The eldest son, King Saud, ruled till 1964 when he was replaced by Faisal. After Faisal’s tragic assassination in 1975, Khalid took over and was succeeded by Fahd in 1982. Fahd died in 2006 and was replaced by Abdullah. Salman succeeded Abdullah in 2015 only because two of his elder brothers, Sultan and Naif, both named as Crown Prince one after the other, died while Abdullah was king.
On taking over in January 2015, King Salman named Muqrin, the youngest of his brothers, as the Crown Prince, and Muhammad bin Naif, a nephew, as the deputy Crown Prince. But Muqrin has been dropped as Crown Prince just three months later. The new order of succession is Muhammad bin Naif as the Crown Prince and the king’s own son Muhammad bin Salman, as the deputy Crown Prince. While Muhammad bin Naif, in his fifties, has held government positions for about twenty years, Muhammad bin Salman, in his thirties, has had little experience. And yet, he is now second in the line of succession. King Salman himself is around 80 years old and is reported to have some health problems. It seems, therefore, that the two young princes, Muhammad bin Naif and Muhammad bin Salman, now really hold power. This is not only a change of generation but also looks like a change of policies.
The Saudi royal family is large and consists of several hundreds if not thousands of princes. Within the top echelon of princes, the sons of Abdul Aziz from a favourite wife, Hassa from the Sudeiri tribe, have formed the most powerful group among the brothers. Known as the Sudeiri brothers, they included Fahd, Sultan, Naif and Salman. The two young Crown Princes are the sons of the Sudeiri brothers. It is clear that the Sudeiri group now dominates power. In effect, it means that the sons of Kings Faisal and Abdullah have been sidelined. Prince Saud al-Faisal, who was Foreign Minister since 1975 has been replaced by a commoner, Adel al Jubeir, the Ambassador in USA. Muqrin has been dropped and prominent princes like Turki al-Faisal and Bandar bin Sultan no longer hold any prominent position. These changes can create dissensions in the royal family, unless those who are now sidelined can be given some top positions.
More important is the issue of changes in policies. Traditionally, Saudi foreign policy has been a mixture of caution, conservatism and consensus-building. Saud al-Faisal was the notable follower of that approach. However, in the last three months, there has been a certain assertiveness in Saudi foreign policy, notably the military intervention in Yemen, and an attempt to build up an anti-Iran group, with emphasis on sectarian (Sunni) identity. The demand for Pakistan’s military help in the Yemen war was one manifestation of this assertive policy. Our ill-advised stance of neutrality, ignoring the special relationship with Saudi Arabia, did create serious problems, especially with the new power-holders in Saudi Arabia, but, hopefully, this has now been resolved. Our traditional commitment has been to Saudi security and not to Saudi ventures outside its borders. Still, we need to be in close touch with the new leadership in Saudi Arabia in order to ensure that our vital ties with that country remain strong.
The new Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel el-Jubeir, has been Ambassador in the USA since 2007. He is US-educated and holds two degrees from American universities. He is fluent in English and is clean-shaven unlike most Saudis. The new Crown Prince Muhammad bin Naif also has won many friends in the US. He too is a graduate from an American university and has attended training courses with the FBI and the Scotland Yard. He has survived assassination attempts by Islamic extremists. Clean-shaven with a moustache, the bespectacled Prince Muhammad bin Naif is articulate and outspoken, unlike most Saudi leaders. Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the deputy Crown Prince, has been educated in Saudi Arabia. He is very young and largely inexperienced but has been lavishly praised by his father and got a big endorsement from the electoral college of the royal princes.
The foregoing suggests that the new power-holders in Saudi Arabia have pro-US leanings. Under King Abdullah, the Saudi regime disapproved some US policies in the Middle East. Abdullah was critical of the US-led nuclear agreement with Iran, the perceived US abandonment of Hosni Mubarak and Obama’s reluctance to act decisively against Bashar al-Assad of Syria. While the Saudi leadership has since established good ties with Egypt’s President General el-Sisi, any closer US links with Iran would displease them. However, both the US and Saudi Arabia have a common stance against the IS, the fanatical group which has seized power in large parts of Iraq and Syria. The US has reaffirmed its desire to maintain strong ties with Saudi Arabia. On Yemen, the US has supported Saudi Arabia. The strong bonds between the US and Saudi Arabia are likely to continue. The oil price will be kept low by the Saudis, which is seriously hurting Russia as well as Iran. This suits both the US and Saudi Arabia.
Internally, the new power-holders might seek to modernize the country, e.g. allowing women to drive. This could, however, run into serious opposition from the Wahhabi religious leadership and other conservative circles. King Salman has been always cautious about introducing such changes that would clash with traditional values. However, he is at the fag-end of his long public career and he has himself brought to power a new generation of princes with entirely different background in education and public dealings. A wind of change is blowing across Saudi Arabia and coming days could bring new and unexpected developments.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.