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Ageing Saudi King a seasoned leader keen to keep status quo

King Salman visiting Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta with Indonesian President Joko Widodo (far left). The King's seven-nation tour of Asia is said to be aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy and promoting its influence in this region.
King Salman visiting Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta with Indonesian President Joko Widodo (far left). The King's seven-nation tour of Asia is said to be aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy and promoting its influence in this region.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

He has to balance royal, tribal and Western interests in Middle East

A Saudi prince once told an American diplomat that social or political reforms in his kingdom had to come slowly amid fears of a backlash from conservatives in the Islamic nation.

He was also against introducing democracy in Saudi Arabia because of its deep tribal conflicts.

Ten years have passed since that meeting and the prince, Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud, is now king.

"We will remain, God willing, holding the straight course that this country has walked on since its establishment by the late King Abdulaziz," he said in his inaugural speech after ascending the throne upon the death of his half-brother King Abdullah in January 2015.

Those words would reflect King Salman's conservative approach to Saudi policy, which often involves maintaining the delicate balancing of royal, tribal and Western interests in a Middle East that has yet to enjoy an extended period of peace.

DECISIVE UNDER PRESSURE

He knows how to deal with more than one crisis or problem at a time, and he knows how to deal with terrorists and subversive threats in a firm manner.

MR ROBERT JORDAN, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, of King Salman.

There have been no major reforms in the first two years of his reign, which comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is facing mounting challenges within the kingdom and from overseas, said observers.

Today, rising youth unemployment, calls for reforms and weak oil prices continue to threaten the stability of the world's largest exporter of "black gold".

Externally, Saudi Arabia has to contend with bitter rival Iran in a proxy war, as well as United States President Donald Trump, who has an open disdain for Arab regimes, even if it is towards a longstanding ally.

Declining oil revenues, in particular, have led to questions on whether the Saudi royal family would have to significantly cut back on its generous, and often extravagant, spending. This includes social benefits for subjects at home, and investments abroad.

Many view the King's seven-nation tour of Asia as a move to diversify the Saudi economy and promote its influence in this part of the world.

King Salman has a strong economic track record as deputy and later governor of the capital Riyadh, which between 1963 and 2011 was able to attract tourism and foreign investments under his leadership.

He is also often said to be decisive and wields a steady hand in times of crisis, such as acting against Al-Qaeda following the Sept 11 terror attacks in 2001, said Mr Robert Jordan, the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time.

"He knows how to deal with more than one crisis or problem at a time, and he knows how to deal with terrorists and subversive threats in a firm manner," Mr Jordan said in a 2015 Bloomberg report.

Observers, however, say they do not expect King Salman to deviate from the kingdom's approach to policymaking or initiate any major internal reforms in near term.

Now aged 81 and reportedly suffering from mild dementia, the King has taken steps to ensure the throne remains in the bloodline of his father and Saudi Arabia's founding monarch, King Abdulaziz.

King Salman is King Abdulaziz's 25th son and whose mother is his father's favourite wife, Hassa Ahmed al-Sudairi. Many have said that among his 30 brothers, he most resembles his father.

He was not first in line to succeed his half-brother, but was appointed heir-apparent in 2012, after his two elder brothers, crown princes Sultan and Nayef, died within a year of each other.

He has been king for only two years but speculation on who will be next in line has already begun.

Among them are his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad Nayef, 57, and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, 31, whom King Salman appointed in April 2015 as his presumptive heir and second in line to the throne respectively.

Prince Nayef is also Interior Minister, while Prince Mohammed Salman is Defence Minister and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.

Although Prince Nayef is first in line, many Saudi and US officials have said Prince Mohammed Salman has tried to usurp the older prince's portfolios to weaken him, reported The New York Times.

The Times, in a profile of the younger prince last year, said young Saudis see him as a representative of their generation, while the kingdom's media has billed him as a hard-working, business-like leader.

Even the critical Human Rights Watch, in its latest report on the kingdom released in January, cited Prince Mohammed Salman "as the most visible Saudi leader in 2016".

Recently, he cut the state budget and pay of civil servants as part of an austerity drive in a faltering economy, for which forecasters expect only 0.4 per cent growth for this year.

Said to be at the helm of Saudi Arabia's plans to transform its economy, he also famously said last year that he hopes to end the kingdom's "addiction to oil" and aims to ensure it no longer relies on it by 2020 for growth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline 'Ageing Saudi King a seasoned leader keen to keep status quo'. Print Edition | Subscribe