Rolling Back Reforms in Riyadh
Will King Salman maintain Abdullah’s legacy of progress toward a more open and inclusive society in Saudi Arabia?
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, whose death was announced in Riyadh early on Jan. 23, led Saudi Arabia through a decade of moderate reforms that gave women greater opportunities, allowed thousands of Saudis to study abroad, and made his oil-rich kingdom a powerful player in the international community. When it came to foreign policy he cast a big shadow, extending Saudi relations with China and Russia and becoming the preeminent Arab leader in regional affairs, as well as in international forums such as the World Trade Organization.
But on domestic matters he walked a fine line. During his decade-long reign, the king angered ultraconservative clerics who saw their religious influence slipping, particularly on young Saudis. He also frustrated progressive Saudis who want to see deeper, faster reforms, especially in the political arena.
Abdullah’s successor, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, is likely to follow a similar reform path as his half brother, but this is far from a certainty. While Salman, 79, is described as a curious, intelligent man, he also is said by many Saudis to be very close to the kingdom’s religious establishment, which promotes a puritanical version of Islam known as Wahhabism and has not been happy with the changes introduced under Abdullah. The recent public flogging of a young Saudi who was convicted of insulting Islam simply because he questioned the clerical controls on Saudi society was seen by some citizens as a sign that the religious right was flexing its muscles in anticipation of Salman’s coming to the throne.
The clerics are likely to pressure Salman to slow the pace of reform or even reverse some recent advances, especially when it comes to public roles of Saudi women. Although Abdullah refused to lift the ban on female drivers, he pushed women to join the workforce and enter Saudi universities. Women make up more than 50 percent of the students at Saudi universities; about one-third of Saudi students studying abroad on King Abdullah scholarships are women.
Salman also is likely to continue to see the United States as his kingdom’s closest ally. Under Abdullah, the Washington-Riyadh relationship weathered some rocky shoals in recent years as the Saudis increasingly felt that the Americans were ignoring their advice, especially not to proceed with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. While relations with the Bush White House remained cordial, the Saudis argued that the U.S. occupation of their northern neighbor allowed their biggest regional rival — Iran — to gain unprecedented economic, political, and strategic roles in Iraq.
Things didn’t improve much under Obama’s presidency: Abdullah was angered by the U.S. decision to support the Egyptian revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak and by its willingness to accept the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi that followed. Riyadh is also extremely wary of the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Iran over the latter’s nuclear weapons program. And Obama’s last-second decision not to bomb Damascus in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack in August 2013 was seen by Riyadh as dithering and weakness — and a sin of omission that has prolonged and exacerbated the Syrian war. Despite the bilateral strains, Riyadh and Washington are close allies on counterterrorism, a relationship that most likely will remain strong.
Abdullah, who was buried according to Wahhabi custom in a simple unadorned grave in a Riyadh cemetery Friday, was beloved by many Saudis who saw him as a benevolent, unpretentious, and honest leader. In this he stood out in the Saudi royal family, many of whose princes — including the new king — are respected but not objects of affection among their subjects. A royal court statement said that Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who is Salman’s half brother, has become crown prince.
In one of his first moves, King Salman appointed his nephew and Minister of Interior Muhammad bin Nayef as deputy crown prince. This puts Nayef in line to become crown prince and, eventually, king — after Muqrin. If that course is not upset, Nayef would become the first among the next generation of princes to ascend the throne. Like his uncle the king, Nayef belongs to the powerful Sudairi clan within the royal family that has often been at odds with King Abdullah, his sons, and their supporters.
Abdullah, with an eye to the future, established the Allegiance Council in 2006 to decide succession matters. The council is made up of 34 sons and grandsons of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. According to its regulations, it is supposed to approve of whomever the present king selects to be his crown prince. But the Allegiance Council has never been officially called into session. When Abdullah appointed Muqrin his deputy crown prince last March, the official decree stated that he had made his decision in cooperation with Salman. It appears, however, that the council was not called into session to participate in Muqrin’s selection. Instead, its members were polled individually, according to an April 1 tweet by Khalid bin Talal, son of Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, an independent-minded maverick within the royal family.
Although the House of Saud has kept a united public front for the past 80 years, this large royal family that boasts some 7,000 to 8,000 members has many different factions that have been angling behind the scenes to come out on top when Salman and Muqrin are gone and the king will come from the ranks of the founder’s grandsons. However, today’s announcement that Mohammed bin Nayef has been appointed deputy crown prince appears to have settled the matter and effectively put a brake, if only temporarily, on internal struggles among the grandsons.
Salman takes over at a precarious time for Saudi Arabia. Its neighbors are consumed by civil war, sectarian mayhem, and economic disarray. In Yemen, to its south, Shiite Houthi rebels have taken the capital, raising the likelihood of a sectarian civil war that plays directly into the hands of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Iraq, to the north, is broken by ethnic infighting and corruption; Syria is less a country than a landscape of rebel fiefdoms riven by violence. Lebanon, meanwhile, is tottering under the weight of 1.5 million Syrian refugees. And the radical jihadi Islamic State, which controls large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, is challenging Riyadh on many fronts: politically, theologically, and militarily. Meanwhile, Riyadh is watching the ongoing Iranian-U.S. dialogue with a sense of foreboding, fearing that its success will allow Iran to emerge as a stronger regional power.
But domestic concerns will also occupy Salman’s first days as king. While some of Abdullah’s reforms continued during his reign, other initiatives stalled because of internal opposition or external pressures. For example, Abdullah is widely credited with bringing more rationality to the Saudi national budget and with instituting some measures to deal with official corruption — even though ordinary Saudis still perceive unfettered royal prerogatives as problems.
And while Abdullah’s early years as king saw new freedoms for the Saudi media and a degree of official tolerance for dissent on the Internet, these liberties dried up after Arab revolutions began in December 2010. With the fall of Egypt’s Mubarak, and the widening chaos in Syria, Saudi Arabia became increasingly concerned that the Arab uprisings would spill over into the kingdom. As a result, the last two years have seen a determined crackdown on critics and dissenters, many of whom were given long prison sentences.
Another early and progressive initiative of King Abdullah was to improve relations with the kingdom’s Shiite minority, which is largely based in the eastern part of the country. But these efforts were also a casualty of events abroad, specifically a Shiite-led revolution in Bahrain that threatened the Sunni royal family there. In 2011, Riyadh sent troops to Bahrain to shut down the uprising. As a result, dialogue between the Saudi Shiites and the Sunni monarchy in Riyadh broke down; violent protests in Shiite communities followed.
The obituaries may laud Abdullah as a reformer, and perhaps for this part of the world he was one. But despite his educational and social reforms, the king refused to budge on — or even countenance — political reform. Like the rest of the royal family, he believed that his desert kingdom should be ruled by an absolute monarchy. Sharing power with its subjects was not in the king’s vision.
The new King Salman no doubt holds similar views. His challenge, like that of his predecessor, will be to continue modernizing Saudi Arabia despite opposition from the religious right and demands for a faster transformation from an increasingly youthful population.
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