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Saudi Arabia: King Salman Upends Status Quo in Region and the Royal Family

Friday 15 May 2015, by siawi3



MAY 10, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — For much of the past decade, change has come slowly to Saudi Arabia, if at all.

The oil-rich kingdom was led by an ailing monarch who worked quietly behind the scenes to preserve the status quo, propping up friendly dictators around the Middle East and depending on a leadership of aging princes at home.

But in the few months since the death of King Abdullah in January, the new king, Salman, has moved fast to reshape foreign and domestic policies. He has rattled alliances with the United States and regional powers that for decades have been the bedrock of stability for his kingdom, and he has also shaken up the Saudi royal family.

King Salman, 79, has shifted toward an activist foreign policy, going to war in Yemen and increasing support for rebels in Syria as he positions his country as the defender of the region’s Sunnis. In some cases, he has sanctioned allying with Islamists to serve the kingdom’s agenda.

Domestically, he has made sweeping changes, promoting younger officials, firing those deemed unfit and giving enormous authority to his untested son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 29. He has shown close ties to religious conservatives, raising questions about the fate of his predecessor’s limited reforms.

Photo: People fleeing in Sana, Yemen, on Sunday after airstrikes there. King Salman of Saudi Arabia formed an Arab military coalition to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen said to be allied with Iran. Credit Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters

“Now, suddenly, change has become the norm,†said Ford M. Fraker, a former United States ambassador to the kingdom who maintains ties with top officials. “King Salman is very clearly stepping up and ensuring that Saudi Arabia is taking the leadership role in the region.â€

Salman’s new direction poses stark challenges to the United States as Saudi Arabia rallies its Sunni allies to press Washington for a firmer commitment to their security.

Those concerns are expected to dominate the conversation when Persian Gulf leaders meet President Obama in Washington this week. King Salman had been expected to attend, but it was announced on Sunday that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef would take his place.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency said the decision had been made because the meeting overlapped with a five-day cease-fire in Yemen, but some Arab officials said the move signaled displeasure over United States policy toward Iran.

King Salman’s policy changes are the efforts of an absolute monarch to re-establish his country’s clout in a region torn apart by civil wars, where weak states are contending with jihadists and rising sectarianism — as well as American reluctance to get too deeply involved.

The new policies are driven by a desire to confront the rising influence of Iran, the kingdom’s Shiite adversary, at a time when a potential deal on Iran’s nuclear program could improve Tehran’s fortunes. They also reflect a resurgence of the pre-Arab Spring model of governance that emphasized centralization of power and a security-first approach to preserving authority and stability.

King Salman has made no gestures toward social or political liberalization in a country where women cannot drive and dissenting views can lead to prison.

In January, he replaced the head of the religious police who was seen as trying to curb excesses of the force. He has also dismissed the deputy education minister, the only woman in such a high-level cabinet post, and appointed as a royal adviser a cleric whom King Abdullah had dismissed for criticizing the country’s first coed university.

But his focus appears to be security, a reaction to the growing influence of Iran and the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In addition to leading an air campaign in Yemen, he has promoted security-minded officials, naming his nephew Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, who as interior minister has led the kingdom’s counterterrorism efforts, crown prince.

Fueling the change is frustration with the United States, long considered the kingdom’s closest Western ally and guarantor of its security. Saudis accuse the Obama administration of neglecting its Arab allies while prioritizing rapprochement with Iran.

In increasing the kingdom’s regional role, King Salman risks escalating the conflict with Iran, fueling further instability. And his support for Islamists could end up empowering extremists, just as Saudi support for the Afghan jihad decades ago helped create Al Qaeda.

Saudi analysts and members of the royal family have lauded King Salman’s moves as necessary to face regional tensions after a period of stagnation.

During his last years, King Abdullah, who died at age 90, was ill, as was his elderly foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. Both men were often tied up with medical treatment as the war in Syria escalated, the Islamic State rampaged across Syria and Iraq; and Iran and its proxies expanded their influence in Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad.

King Salman hit back in March, after mostly Shiite rebels in Yemen seized the capital and forced the president into exile, by forming an Arab military coalition to bomb the rebels, known as Houthis.

“People are seeing this as positive because they have been longing to have a decisive leader,†said Awadh al-Badi, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. “Danger is coming toward the borders and there are threats around the region.â€

While diplomats dispute the strength of ties between Iran and the Houthis, Saudi leaders worried that the Houthis could become an Iranian-backed threat on their border, as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is to Israel. But Western analysts and diplomats say that there are great risks to the intervention.

The Houthis appear unwilling to withdraw, and the ousted president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is in Riyadh as aid agencies warn of a humanitarian crisis. Al Qaeda in Yemen, meanwhile, has used the chaos to gain ground.

“Hadi’s political support on the ground is being undermined as Yemeni civilians see him sitting comfortably in Riyadh applauding airstrikes that are making their lives hell,†said Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a policy institute in London.

In another shift, King Salman appears to have discarded his predecessor’s rejection of political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood as a fundamental threat to the regional order. King Abdullah had branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and worked with Egypt to wipe it out there.

The sooner renewables can be brought online the better. Distancing from Saudi Arabia and other such countries can’t come soon enough.

In Yemen, King Salman is working with Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood political party, and has warmed relations with Qatar, a backer of the Brotherhood. In March, he received Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Riyadh. The two agreed to work together to support the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, according to Yasin Aktay, the foreign relations chief for Turkey’s governing party.

Although Mr. Aktay said that only moderate groups received support, many of Syria’s most effective fighters are staunch Islamists who often fight alongside the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, raising the possibility that aid might also empower extremists.

King Salman has a history of working with Islamists. Decades ago, he was a royal point man and fund-raiser for jihadists going to Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere.

He also spent 48 years as governor of Riyadh Province, a position from which he has brought a strict, top-down management style. He worked long hours, and residents joked about setting their watches to the sight of his convoy heading to work at 8 a.m.

He managed the family’s relationships with the tribes, giving him deep knowledge of Saudi society, and read widely, often summoning writers he disagreed with to discuss their views.

As king, he has reformatted the government. He replaced Prince Saud as foreign minister with Adel al-Jubeir, the former ambassador to Washington, who is decades younger. When a presentation by the minister of housing failed to impress, he was replaced. The health minister was fired after being filmed arguing with a citizen. And the head of protocol at the royal court was dismissed after he hit a photographer during a visit by the king of Morocco.

But generating the most scrutiny is the tremendous power the king has granted his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who now oversees some of the kingdom’s most important portfolios. Among his big jobs are defense minister; head of an economic and development council composed of top ministers; and head of the Supreme Council of Saudi Aramco, the state oil giant.

Prince Mohammed’s biography contains little military or financial experience. He has mostly worked for his father. And his power makes some nervous.

“What you have is a 29-year-old with untested and unproven leadership qualities and who is reported to be impulsive in his decision making,†said a diplomat involved in Saudi issues, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Some have speculated that such centralization of power could cause challenges from those in the royal family who have been left out. Others say those princes have the most to lose if the dynasty that keeps them rich falters.

“They have the power, I have billions in the bank,†said an aide to a top prince, summarizing the views of many in the family. “It is not in their interest to shake things.â€