Saudi Arabia

Tough transition

Print edition : February 20, 2015

King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz at the Gulf Cooperation Council consultative summit in Riyadh in May 2010. Photo: AP

Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who has been crowned the new King, in Riyadh. Photo: AP/ Saudi Press Agency

Members of the Saudi royal family carry the body of King Abdullah during his funeral in Riyadh. In line with the Islamic tradition observed in the kingdom, King Abdullah was draped in an unadorned beige cloth and buried without a coffin in an unmarked grave. Photo: AP

The new succession order, announced with unusual speed after King Abdullah’s passing away, prepares the ground for a generational shift in the Gulf kingdom.

The death of Saudi Arabia's absolute ruler, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, on January 23 brings to an end an era in which the richest Gulf country played a pivotal role in regional politics. Although King Abdullah formally assumed the throne only in 2005, he was the de facto ruler after his half-brother King Fahd was laid low by a debilitating stroke in the mid-1990s. Since the death of Ibn Saud, the country’s founder, in 1953, the throne has alternated between his 53 sons. Abdullah has been succeeded by another brother of his, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud. King Salman is said to be around 70 years old. The new Crown Prince, chosen by the “allegiance council” comprising members of the royal family, is the 68-year-old Prince Muqrin, the youngest son of King Saud. For the first time, however, a Deputy Crown Prince has been appointed.

The new succession order, announced with unusual speed, prepares the ground for a generational shift. The Deputy Crown Prince is the influential Interior Minister, Mohammed bin Nayyef. He is a grandson of King Saud. Nayyef spearheaded the fight against Al Qaeda, which launched many high-profile terror attacks in the kingdom in the past decade. The terrorist threat to the kingdom is likely to increase with the spectacular rise of the Islamic State (I.S.) in the region. A top Army general was among those killed in an I.S. attack on a Saudi border post in early January.

Saudi Arabia is part of the military alliance cobbled up by the United States to take on the I.S. King Abdullah wanted a similar alliance to take on the Syrian government. According to reports in the U.S. media, the late monarch was disappointed with President Barack Obama’s eleventh-hour decision to refrain from ordering military strikes against Syria in 2013. Senator John McCain, speaking to the U.S. media after the death of the Saudi King, said the Saudi Air Force was all set to launch raids on Syria in alliance with U.S. and French forces. Air strikes involving U.S. and Saudi war planes did finally happen in Syria, but with the tacit agreement of the Syrian government as the targets were I.S.-held areas.

There was no love lost between the Saudi King and another Arab leader, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. The two had famously got into a slanging match at an Arab League summit, with King Abdullah hurling the choicest epithets in chaste Arabic. The only republican leader in the region, King Abdullah apparently had a soft corner for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He blamed the U.S. for standing aside and letting street opinion prevail in Egypt. Saudi officials told the media that the King was so upset when Obama told him on the phone about the decision to distance the U.S. government from Mubarak that he abruptly ended the conversation. The ouster of Mubarak was even more unpalatable to the Saudi royalty as it led to democratic elections and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the most influential and populous Arab country.

The Saudis and their allies in the region then worked overtime to ensure that the mandate of the people was compromised. The King ensured that the Saudi government provided the military government in Cairo the funds and aid necessary to keep the Egyptian economy afloat. He no doubt played a big role in persuading other Gulf monarchies to follow suit and take a tough line on the pro-democracy movements in the region.

Before the Egyptian revolution was crushed, the Saudis under the leadership of King Abdullah helped shore up the monarchy in neighbouring Bahrain. The predominantly Shia population of the small kingdom had been demanding free elections and more representation. There were widespread protests in the capital Manama in 2012 and 2013. The protests were put down with force. To ensure the continuance of the monarchy, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent in a “peacekeeping” force, which remains in place there even today.

King Abdullah, as the WikiLeaks documents showed, viewed another neighbouring country, Iran, as an existential threat. “Cut off the head of the snake” in Tehran, he urges the U.S. in one of the leaked texts. The late King wanted the U.S. to take military action against Iran. He saw an Iranian hand everywhere in the region, be it in Yemen, Lebanon or Bahrain. But for Iranian and Russian assistance to the government in Damascus in crucial military and diplomatic fronts, King Abdullah’s dream of effecting regime change in Syria would have materialised.

Despite Iran going out of its way to repair relations with the Saudi kingdom, the King never seemed to have overcome his hostility. For all practical purposes, the Saudi monarchy and the Israeli political establishment were united in their goal of keeping Iran isolated. Saudi Arabia and Israel are vehemently opposed to a nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran. The religious hierarchy in Saudi Arabia, from which the monarchy draws much of its legitimacy to rule, views Shias as apostates. The sectarian divide, which has fuelled the wars in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the region, was widened by the sermons and public lectures of Saudi clerics operating under the benign eye of the monarchy.

The fundamentalist beliefs of the I.S. and other jehadist groups are deeply influenced by the Wahhabi ideology, which remains the cornerstone of the Saudi state. The House of Saud had formed an alliance with a cleric, Hassan Wahab, in the late 19th century. King Saud had in fact married one of his daughters. The I.S. uses Saudi-style textbooks in schools in the areas they control. The group’s penchant for beheading seems to be inspired by similar practices in Saudi Arabia. Thieves and drug dealers are routinely beheaded in Saudi Arabia. The Shia minority, which is around 15 per cent of the population of the kingdom, has for long felt discriminated. The Saudi establishment is fearful that a strong Iran could encourage legitimate Shia political aspirations in the kingdom.

Under King Abdullah, the Saudis did not give up their propensity to use “oil” as a weapon in geopolitics. The kingdom is the biggest producer of crude oil. One of the most important decisions taken by the Saudi monarch was to keep on pumping oil at the same levels despite gas prices slumping to record lows since the middle of last year. Many factors seem to have dictated the Saudi decision. The Saudis had tried to influence Russia in 2014 by offering to sign multibillion arms contracts. But Moscow has remained committed to the Syrian government. The continuing Saudi inaction as oil prices plummeted has adversely hit the Russian economy. Also hit is the struggling Iranian economy. Prices have slumped below $50 a barrel from $100 a barrel last year. The U.S.’ shale oil industry has no doubt taken a blow as a result of plummeting oil prices, but its nemesis in the region, the left-wing government in Venezuela, which depends on oil exports to subsidise its economy, is reeling from the impact.

The drop in oil prices has led to a $38.6-billion deficit in the kingdom’s 2015 budget. The new rulers will not have to worry in the short run as the country has $750 billion in reserve. King Salman has not given any indication that he will be reversing the current Saudi oil policy in a hurry. There are reports that the younger members of the royal family, who number in their thousands today, are not too happy with the former King’s policy of allowing oil prices to fall. As it is, oil experts have predicted that prices will never reach the three-figure mark anytime in the near future.

Under King Abdullah, the Saudi government had introduced a $400-billion stimulus package in 2008. The crisis in the North American economy adversely affected the Saudi economy. In 2010, with the unemployment rate among Saudi nationals rising, the government introduced a $384-billion five-year development package. Public sector salaries were increased. But unemployment continues to be an issue in a country where half the population is below 25 years of age. In 2011, after the Arab Spring uprisings shook the foundations of many governments in the region, the Saudi government spent billions of dollars to improve the living conditions and pay allowances to unemployed Saudi graduates.

Under King Abdullah, there were some incremental attempts at political reforms. Women, while still being prohibited from driving, were allowed to vote in closely supervised municipal elections. The media were allowed some latitude in criticising government and social policies. But during his reign, many political and human rights activists were jailed. In November last year, the King’s Advisory Council recommended that the government ease its curbs on women driving. But in the very next month, two Saudi women were arrested for driving and were tried and sentenced in a court designated to try terrorists. Raif Badawi, a Saudi citizen, whose case has now become a cause célèbre, has been given a lengthy jail sentence along with a thousand lashes for running a website which dared to question the archaic religious laws governing the country. Last October, a special court sentenced a prominent Shia activist, Sheikh Nimr Bakr al-Nimr, to death for “disobeying the King”. His supporters claim that his only crime was demanding more rights for women and his compatriots along with democratic rights in the kingdom. The sentence has not been carried out so far following widespread international criticism.

Yemen in ferment

The new King will be facing many challenges. Yemen, with which Saudi Arabia shares a 1,700-kilometre-long border, is in ferment. The Saudis are busy constructing a border fence to keep poor Yemenis and infiltrators out of their kingdom. The rise of Houthis in Yemen is a matter of serious concern for Saudis. Houthis belong to a sect that is closer to Shias than to Sunnis. The Saudi Army engaged them on various occasions in the past, siding with the central government. But now the tables have been turned, with Houthis controlling the capital and much of the country. In desperation, the Saudis are said to be funding and supplying arms to Sunni militant groups, which are sworn enemies of Houthis. The $4 billion in Saudi aid to the impoverished country has been suspended. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has its base in Yemen, is doing most of the fighting against Houthis.

King Salman, according to a 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, is not in favour of the mild political reforms in the kingdom and thinks they are ill-suited for a conservative country such as Saudi Arabia. He told the U.S. Ambassador that a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a prerequisite for regional peace and stability.

Obama cut short his tour to India to visit Saudi Arabia to offer his condolences. Despite differences on the approaches to be taken on Syria, Iran and other issues, U.S. and Saudi Arabia remain “staunch allies” in the “war against terrorism”. The U.S. is training Syrians in Saudi Arabia to take on the government in Damascus and the I.S. simultaneously. The Saudi government is insisting that both the I.S. and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have to be defeated militarily. Washington is playing along with Riyadh even as it realises that the Assad government will be around over the long haul.

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