New King Salman pledges no change in Saudi direction, appoints son as defence minister

A file handout picture released by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on Jan 6, 2015 shows Saudi deputy Premier and Minister of Defence Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud arriving to inaugurate the works of the third year of the sixth session of the
A file handout picture released by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on Jan 6, 2015 shows Saudi deputy Premier and Minister of Defence Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud arriving to inaugurate the works of the third year of the sixth session of the Al-Shura Council in Riyadh. -- PHOTO: AFP

RIYADH (AFP, Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's new King Salman, in his first public address, pledged on Friday no change in the kingdom's direction and called for unity among Muslims.

"We will remain with God's strength attached to the straight path that this state has walked since its establishment by King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, and by his sons after him," Salman said in televised remarks.

He appointed Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as Deputy Crown Prince, making him next in line after Crown Prince Muqrin, in a royal decree carried on state television. 

He appointed his son Mohammed bin Salman the defence minister and head of the royal court, while keeping other ministers - including the foreign, oil and finance portfolios - in place, state TV said.

Salman has swiftly quelled speculation about internal palace rifts at a moment of great regional turmoil. Oil prices jumped in an immediate reaction as news of Abdullah’s death added to uncertainty in energy markets. 

Salman, thought to be 79, takes over as the ultimate authority in a country that faces long-term domestic challenges compounded by the plunging price of oil in recent months and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, which vows to toppled the Al Saud.

Salman must navigate a white-hot rivalry with Shi’ite Muslim power Iran playing out in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain, open conflict in two neighbouring states, a threat from Islamist militants and bumpy relations with the United States.

In his first speech as king, shown live on Saudi television, Salman pledged to maintain the same approach to ruling the world’s top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam as his predecessors and called for unity among Arab states.

All Saudi kings since Abdulaziz’s death in 1953 have been his sons and the move into the next generation had raised the prospect of a palace power struggle. 

Reputedly pragmatic and adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal, royal and Western interests that factor into Saudi policy making, Salman appears unlikely to change the kingdom’s approach to foreign affairs or energy sales.

Despite rumours about Salman’s health and strength, diplomats who have attended meetings between the new king and foreign leaders over the past year have said he has been fully engaged in talks lasting several hours at a time.

REFORM LEGACY

Many Saudis in a country with a young population will be unable to recall a time before King Abdullah’s rule, both as monarch from 2005 and as de facto regent for a decade before that. His legacy was an effort to overhaul the kingdom’s economic and social systems to address a looming demographic crisis by creating private sector jobs and making young Saudis better prepared to take them.

“I think (Salman) will continue with Abdullah’s reforms. He realises the importance of this. He’s not conservative in person, but he values the opinion of the conservative constituency of the country,” said Jamal Khashoggi, head of a news channel owned by a Saudi prince.

However, Abdullah’s reforms did not stretch to politics, and after the Arab Spring his security forces clamped down on all forms of dissent, imprisoning outspoken critics of the ruling family alongside women drivers and Islamist militants. As the Saudi population grows and oil prices fall globally, the Al Saud will increasingly struggle to maintain its generous spending on social benefits for ordinary people, potentially undermining its future legitimacy in a country where there are no elections, analysts say.

King Salman has previously spoken against the idea of introducing democracy in Saudi Arabia in comments to American diplomats recorded in embassy cables later released by WikiLeaks.

In the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, ostentatious displays of grief are frowned upon: after previous deaths of Saudi monarchs and other top royals, there was no official period of mourning and flags were at full mast. Despite a surge of sorrowful messages from Saudis on social media, that religious constraint on public commemorations meant there were no signs in Riyadh’s streets early on Friday that the country’s long-time ruler had died.