The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud would be the new heir to the throne, after the sudden death of previous crown prince Nayef on Saturday. Prince Salman’s elevation to the next in line to the throne was not entirely unexpected — as a well-respected Minister of Defense and half brother to the current King, he was one of the top choices — but as the dust settles over this latest transition, Saudis and Saudi watchers alike will be fervently hoping that this time the new crown prince will stick around long enough to make it to the throne. Salman, who is 75, is the third prince to be appointed heir to King Abdullah, 87, since he came to power in 2005. Saudi Arabia, already threatened with fallout from the Arab Spring lapping at its authoritarian shores, can little afford the instability that interrupted lines of succession might bring.
And as long as the rest of the world depends on Saudi oil, few nations will want to see anything but a steady hand at its helm.
Salman, who has no known health issues beyond a bad back, is likely to be that reassuring presence, especially with King Abdullah’s inevitable decline into very old age. “A Saudi crown prince has more power and influence than an American Vice President,” says historian Robert Lacey, author of two books on the Saudi royal family. “And if the king is incapacitated, the channels of power run through the crown prince.”
Salman is known as a decisive leader, hardworking and punctual — local taxi lore has it that when he was mayor of Riyadh, you could set your watch to his daily 8 a.m. motor cavalcade to the office. As the family disciplinarian who maintains a private jail for errant princes and spendthrift princesses who neglect to pay their bills, he is seen as just, incorruptible and pragmatic. He will safeguard the family’s interest, not in terms of material wealth but in terms of maintaining the supremacy of the House of Saud in an era in which Arab strongmen and monarchs are constantly under threat. Under Salman, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to change its steadfast support — politically, militarily and economically — for Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy that is currently facing widespread uprising by the country’s Shi‘ite majority. Nor will he change Saudi Arabia’s emphatic backing of Syria’s anti-Assad forces.
And, says Lacey, Salman is likely to maintain the desert-tortoise-slow but steady path toward modernization first embarked on by Abdullah in 2005. Women will drive, eventually. And he will not interfere with Abdullah’s commitment to let women vote and run in the 2015 local council elections. “Under Salman, we are going to see moderate progress, with a firm hand,” says Lacey. “Saudi is a conservative country, and all monarchies survive by being conservative.”
Of course, as I pointed out in a previous blog post on the succession issue, it may not be enough, given Saudi Arabia’s rapidly changing demographic.
With most of those directly in line to the throne hobbling about with canes, hip replacements or in wheelchairs, one could be forgiven for thinking of Saudi palaces as particularly well-appointed old-age homes. The next few decades in Saudi Arabia are likely to be marked by a succession of funerals and coronations as the top position in the world’s largest oil exporter cycles through a generation that had more to do with the kingdom’s foundations than it does with the country’s future. As the crown passes from head to head, it is likely to slow the process of reform and progress in a kingdom that in many ways still feels mired in the past century. The ruling family’s authoritarian grip on power may provide stability in the short term, but with half the population under the age of 18, and with a leadership almost entirely above the age of 70, it seems inevitable that tensions will rise.
Though for all his advanced years, Salman may have a grip on that as well. Long before he became crown prince, says Lacey, Salman endeavored to keep abreast of what the new generation wanted by recruiting young men to take straw polls of current thinking from their contemporaries. After all, a monarch, and even a monarch-in-waiting, still needs the support of the people to stay in power. No matter how long they live.