The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah at the age of 90 on Thursday brings to power his half-brother, a former governor of Riyadh who has warned that democracy can only come to the conservative desert kingdom at a gradual pace.
The succession of Salman ibn Abdul-Aziz, who had been crown prince and defense minister since 2012, guarantees a smooth transition that is unlikely to cause major upsets at home or abroad, according to many of those who study the secretive royal family.
FOR THE RECORD
Saudi King Salman: On Jan. 22, an online article about King Salman, the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, said that he was reported to suffer “from some form of dementia.” The Times has no independent evidence of the king’s mental health. Lawyers for the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia assert that such reports are untrue and have “not a shred of evidence to substantiate” them.
But at nearly 80, Salman ibn Abdul-Aziz, is also elderly, as is his designated successor. Soon, the House of Saud must decide who in the younger generation of princes will be positioned to eventually take power.
“This could be a prolonged era of leadership change,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
Salman had already taken on many of the official and public duties of the ailing Abdullah, including representing him at a Persian Gulf summit in December in Qatar. He also oversaw the kingdom’s participation in U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria against Islamic State militants, whom the monarchy has come to see as a threat to its own stability.
As ruler, he is unlikely to bring immediate and tumultuous change to a kingdom whose rulers have always emphasized gradual evolution.
“The Saudi government is a big ship and it steers very slowly,” said Jon Alterman, vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Middle East program.
“The king has an entourage … one that in many cases has been with him for decades. There will be a change in personalities, people who have been waiting for a long time to settle scores, to have the opportunity to do things they think are important to do,” Alterman said.
“But the reality is that the differences between the princes diminish as they get closer to being king. King Abdullah had a reputation for being anti-American 20 or 30 years ago. But it ceases to be about you and [becomes] more about national interests.”
The king’s role is more circumscribed than it may appear from abroad. He must share power with other senior members of the royal family and also take into account important constituencies, including the country’s influential clerics.
“Although it is an authoritarian political system, you have to reach a measure of consensus within the elite,” said Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a British-based think tank.
“It’s not like the smaller gulf sheikdoms, where the king can make many more decisions by himself. That also suggests that there aren’t going to be dramatic changes in policy, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
“Of course, we can’t rule out there being some surprises,” she added. “But I think Salman in particular is unlikely to usher in any radical changes at this stage in his life, and he will be surrounded by other members of his family who are advising him and very likely to try to maintain a consensus.”
Salman has been a voice of caution on issues of social and cultural change.
In a meeting with former U.S. Ambassador James C. Oberwetter in 2007, described in a cable released by WikiLeaks, Salman argued that reforms instigated by Abdullah had to proceed slowly for fear of a conservative backlash.
He compared the slow pace of Saudi Arabia’s social reforms to the U.S., which he noted did not address racism against blacks and discrimination against Jews until the mid-1960s “because of social and political circumstances,” as the cable described it.
Democracy should not be imposed, he added, and he used the U.S. Civil War as an example of what can happen.
Salman, U.S. diplomats reported, emphasized the need for the U.S. to withdraw from its engagement in Iraq “with dignity” and to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if it ever hopes for peace in the region.
Salman had a reputation for being “very energetic, very outgoing and capable” when he was mayor of Riyadh, Alterman said. But there are rumors that he suffers from some form of dementia, and there is some expectation that his reign may be a short one.
The throne has traditionally passed among the sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz al Saud, who had 45 of them by multiple wives.
Abdullah took the unusual step last year of designating a second successor, his 69-year-old half-brother, Muqrin ibn Abul-Aziz, a former air force pilot and intelligence chief reported to be “very responsible and detail-oriented,” according to Alterman.
But as the youngest of Abdul-Aziz’s surviving sons, Muqrin would be the last of a generation. Any future monarch would probably come from the next line of princes, raising the possibility of a power struggle in the House of Saud.
That rivalry could increase if oil prices remain low and senior princes find themselves competing for a share of diminishing government revenue. But Abdullah took care to appoint members of the next generation to important positions, giving them a stake in the system and making them “unlikely to want to seriously rock the boat,” Kinninmont said.
One of Abdullah’s sons, Prince Mutaib ibn Abdullah, heads the National Guard, and Prince Mohammed ibn Nayef, the son of a former crown prince, serves as interior minister.
Shaikh suggested that the Saudis would be eager to preserve an appearance of unity and that any struggles would play out in private.
Salman takes the helm at a delicate time for the kingdom. Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni Muslim power in the Persian Gulf region, is worried that the United States might strike a nuclear deal with its Shiite Muslim archrival, Iran. There are also threats to contend with on its borders with Yemen and Iraq. And there is pressure for social change from the swelling population of those younger than 20, who make up half of the kingdom’s 20 million people.
Abdullah was adept at balancing competing interests. He took a stand against rampant corruption, and while it did not resolve the problem, his approach was popular among religious conservatives. He also took modest steps to improve conditions for women and members of the Shiite minority.
“He appealed to quite a lot of different social groups,” Kinninmont said. “It may be hard for Salman to carry out such an impressive balancing act.”
Times staff writer Laura King contributed to this report.