In the midst of multiple Middle Eastern crises, the long ruling King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Ibn Saud, died in January. Determined to assure a smooth transition, Abdullah obtained in 2013 a succession decree to two half-brothers and it has held.
The Kingdom: The ruling monarchy was established in 1902 by Ibn Saud in an alliance with the ultra- hardline Wahabi branch of Sunni religious clerics of the Arabian peninsula, an alliance still firmly in place. From oil production, the al-Sauds are the world’s richest family. No parliament exists. Succession has traditionally been to one of Ibn Saud’s many sons from multiple wives. Few sons remain.
Succession: Given the advanced age and poor health of the new King and Crown Prince, speculation on future rulers has not abated. Which grandsons will ultimately gain power? It could be messy in a monarchy that has 25,000 princes and princesses. But the grandson just chosen by the new king as number three is already in a key position and well known to US officials.
New King: Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (age 79) is part of the powerful Sudairi faction within the al-Saud family and is a former governor of the capital of Riyadh, overseeing its transformation from a desert town to a modern metropolis. He has been Defense Minister since 2012 and recently approved Saudi participation in air strikes against the self-named Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq/Syria.
King Salman is reportedly less interested in Saudi-style political and social reform than Abdullah and more oriented towards the religious leadership. Hence Saudi women are unlikely to gain permission to drive anytime soon! Yet, mindful of social media, Salman has the fastest-growing Twitter profile in the world as he uses it to get out the message he wants Saudis and the world to hear.
Cementing his Sudairi family power base, Salman swiftly appointed his 35- year old son Mohammed bin Salman as Defense Minister and another son as Deputy Oil Minister
New Crown Prince. Next in line is the affable Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (age 70) who was a favorite of King Abdullah and served most recently as his special advisor and envoy. Since his mother is Yemeni, his naming as deputy crown prince in the 2013 succession decree was a surprise, bypassing Salman’s half- brother, Ahmad. One wonders how firm Muqrin is in future succession.
New Deputy Crown Prince: The first Ibn Saud grandson in the succession is Mohammed bin Nayef (age 53), another member of the Sudairi faction. He is particularly powerful as Minister of Interior. Of note is that he attended (but did not graduate) from Lewis and Clark College in Portland.
He has been a leading force, originally with his father, the former hard-line Interior Minister from 1975-2012, in preserving stability by fending off a hostile al- Qaeda within Saudi Arabia and stifling domestic political dissent. He protects a vital oil infrastructure.
He works closely with the White House and American intelligence on counter-terrorism and is credited with providing intelligence that foiled at least two al Qaeda plots against Western targets.
He has led Saudi opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East (ME) because the Saudi monarchy sees it as a political form of Islam that could threaten its power. In that regard, not all Arab states support the Saudi call to wipe out the Brotherhood.
Saudi Gain: While Saudi Arabia has deplored the Arab Spring movements in the ME, it has actually benefited from the weakness or collapse of many ME states. Today it is considered the leading Sunni voice, replacing Egypt whose new military regime relies on Saudi economic largess.
Saudi Aim: Saudi Arabia uses its influence in a single-minded and fierce ME power rivalry with Iran that is both religious in content (Sunni v. Shiite) and historic (Arab v. Persian). Interesting are the hints in the press that Israel and Saudi Arabia are finding common cause in their antagonism to Iran and might become allies of sorts in the future.
U.S. Relations: The fissures in outlook are more apparent now that the U.S. is less reliant on Saudi Arabian oil. The Saudis hate any U.S. promotion of democracy in the ME (e.g. Egypt or Iraq). They want the US willing to bomb their Shiite enemies in Syria and Iran. They strongly object to current U.S./European negotiations with Iran over nuclear development. For years they have ignored U.S. demarches on human rights issues within Saudi Arabia, the most recent one protesting a sentence of 1,000 lashes for a journalist.
And a troubling sub rosa factor to us is the influence that Saudi Arabia’s ultra conservative Wahabi religion has long had in fueling extremist Sunni movements worldwide — at the expense of more moderate strains of Islam. In contrast to officially declared Saudi government policy, individual Saudis support extremist groups, including ISIS, with plentiful amounts of money.
Still, neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia can abandon each other as evident by President Obama’s visit to Riyadh after Abdullah’s death. The U.S. and new Saudi leadership will likely continue to cooperate in countering terrorism, protecting Saudi oil fields and keeping a strong defense bulwark against Iran.
Ambassador Harriet Isom grew up in Pendleton and has retired to the family ranch. She was a career diplomat serving in Asia and Africa from 1961 to 1996.