With the appointment of both a crown prince and a deputy crown prince, following the death of King Abdullah, major leadership hurdles in Saudi Arabia have been crossed, as Gerald Butt explains.
Only hours after the death of King Abdullah the whole face of the senior Saudi leadership had changed – and two major controversies had been resolved. 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 on social media and among Saudi Arabia analysts appeared to be that Salman might prefer his full brother Ahmed taking that role.
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 to the throne. 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 among the grandsons of Ibn Saud.
So Saudis were surprised to hear so swiftly 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 thus 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 King Abdullah – Prince Mitaib, head of the National Guard in particular – 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 Prince Muhammed bin Salman to the post of defence minister and head of the royal court. Prince 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 the ongoing Saudi concern about the threat from Yemen-based Al Qaeda groups.
In general, King 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. King 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.
The aftermath of the death of King Abdullah, in short, has thrown up some surprises in terms of senior appointments. The initial signs are though that the reign of King Salman will be marked more by continuity than innovation – but with a sense of relief that a clear path of succession to the younger generation is in place.
Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is an analyst and author on the region.