Salman’s Saudi Arabia is on course – but for how long?

Hold the line: Salman takes the helm. EPA/SPA

On the evening of January 22 2015, King Abdullah, the 90-year-old ruler of Saudi Arabia, died. The announcement that the 79-year-old Salman al-Saud is to become king was unsurprising, but given his health there are still serious question marks over Saudi Arabia’s long-term trajectory.

Salman, who held the office of defence minister before becoming Crown Prince in 2012, was the obvious choice for the next monarch. Having been governor of Riyadh for 48 years, which he ran as its population went from 200,000 to 7m, Salman also stood in for Abdullah during his recent illnesses.

Succeeding Salman as Crown Prince is his youngest half-brother, the 69-year-old Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, and as deputy crown prince, Salman’s nephew, 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef. If he became king, Mohammed would be the first of Ibn Saud’s grandchildren to take power, and would put the third generation of al-Saud on the throne at last.

The complexity of succession in the al-Saud, we only need to look at the way Saudi Arabia formed in the early years of the 20th century.

Next generation

Efforts to establish an al-Saud dynasty across the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th and 19th centuries were short-lived, thanks to the complexity of tribal politics and the influence of external actors such as the Ottomans and the British. Several strategies were tried to secure the loyalty of the numerous tribal lineages across Arabia, including inter-tribal marriage, which has left Saudi Arabia with some 6,000 princes in the larger al-Saud dynasty.

Relative stability has held in the succession process for decades, as the throne passed from Ibn Saud to his eldest son, then to the next eldest, and so on. But the moment is fast approaching where the throne of the third Saudi state in Arabia will finally pass to a third generation.

The ascension of Salman could help provide continuity for decades to come by cementing the prominence of the Sudari faction. This is an alliance of seven brothers, the children of Ibn Saud and Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudari, said to be one of the favourite wives of the founder of Saudi Arabia. While all of the kingdom’s rulers have been the sons of Ibn Saud, the Sudari faction has been especially prominent and, as the largest bloc of full siblings, it has packed a large political clout.

Now, with the appointment of Mohammed as deputy crown prince, it seems clear that Salman has managed to ensure the Sudaris will hold on to Saudi Arabia at least into the next generation, and probably beyond.

Friends of convenience

Given the importance of Saudi Arabia as an ally to the US and UK, particularly in the fight against Islamic State, the kingdom’s internal politics are of great concern to the West. Clearly, the fact that up to 20% of the world’s oil reserves are confined to Saudi Arabia’s Shia-dominated Eastern Province has placed the kingdom in a prominent position within Western strategic calculations.

However, despite this importance, Saudi Arabia’s allies are increasingly concerned by Riyadh’s human rights record, which is abhorrent – highlighted recently by the case of the Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for comments made on an online forum about Islam. Or indeed, by the recent video of a woman from Burma being publicly beheaded in Mecca following a very bloody 2014, in which CNN reports Saudi Arabia executed 87 people, mostly by beheading.

Yet the closeness of the British monarchy to the al-Saud and other regional dynasties is well-known, stressed by suggestions that Prince Charles will be attending Abdullah’s funeral along with other Western dignitaries.

The absurdity of it all is best brought home in the story relayed by Sherard Cowper-Cowles, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia. As he tells it, when Abdullah visited Balmoral as crown prince, he was taken for a boisterous spin round the estate by the Queen in her Land Rover. Saudi women, of course, are still banned from driving – see the recent arrest of Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Alamoudi – and the Queen’s army-trained driving apparently scared the Saudi prince stiff.

Staying the course

In the short term, Saudi Arabia’s future looks clear enough. But the country’s dismal human rights record, coupled with the coming rise of the third generation of al-Saud leaders in the coming year sets it up for a much tougher long game, both domestically and internationally, as oil prices plummet, Islamic State prods the Saudi border and patience with the regime’s brutal ways runs thin among its global allies.

Still, the country now has a new king who is eager to maintain the status quo. In reality, he has little choice, whatever the external pressure; the kingdom’s tribal dynamics make democracy more or less impossible – and any liberalising reforms will be painfully slow. Underpinning it all is grim calculus: to avoid descending into the levels of chaos seen in Syria or Iraq, the Saudi population will continue to pay a heavy price.