A kingdom in transition

June 24, 2017


A FASCINATING transition is taking place in Saudi Arabia, with the baton now passing from an ageing — and often ineffective because of ill health — generation to a new and largely inexperienced one.

Since Faisal became king at the age of 58 in 1964, the Saudi throne has been occupied by an ageing monarch mainly because of what the Guardian described as a horizontal line of succession, with brother succeeding brother.

A 62-year-old Khalid was named king after the killing of his brother Faisal. Khalid passed away at 69; Fahd who followed him in 1982 died in 2005 at the age of 84. When Abdullah succeeded Fahd in 2005, he was already 81 and quite ill. He was 91 when he died in 2015. The current monarch, Salman, ascended the throne at 82.

One hopes that the new crown prince’s prize hire, retired Gen Raheel Sharif, can offer wise counsel to his employer to ensure the region doesn’t plunge into a new conflict.

He is 84 now and also said to be in poor health. A cursory look at this information shows that the youngest Saudi ruler over the past half a century was Faisal when he pushed out his brother Saud in a power struggle in 1964.

Since then, the youngest to be named kings were Khalid at 62 and Fahd (61) followed by the 81-year-old Abdullah and Salman at 82. It is against this backdrop that even (the just removed) former crown prince Mohammad bin Nayef looked quite young when given the position in his mid-50s.

The latest developments, however, have placed matters of the kingdom firmly in the generation which is in its 30s, with King Salman’s favourite son, Mohammad bin Salman, emerging as a powerful crown prince.

If Saudi Arabia is a closed society, its royalty seems sheathed in multiple layers of secrecy, so very little information emerges about what is happening inside. There are only hints of trouble and discord occasionally.

When the Mohammad bin Salman was named defence minister and deputy crown prince, and announced plans to bring changes to the country’s oil-revenue-dependent economy and also started flexing his muscle in the region, a letter appeared in the Western press purportedly written by another member of the royal family expressing serious concern at the young man’s policies.

The start of his military campaign against the pro-Iran Houthis in Yemen, who deposed the country’s internationally accepted government and now control large swaths of its territory, was seen as part of his efforts to establish his authority and earn respect and support at home.

Then his media interviews, where he openly expressed his disquiet at Tehran’s role in the region and held out a warning that the battle to curtail Iranian influence would be taken to the Islamic Republic’s own soil, were also seen as part of an image-building effort.

The latest row with Qatar may well be part of the same effort, as the prince feels that Saudi Arabia’s status as a regional power needs to be acknowledged by other Gulf nations and was not done due to an ageing and weak Saudi leadership.

Despite having US President Trump’s endorsement (even if the US State Department is playing an entirely different tune), the new crown prince has thus far failed to win his argument which is ostensibly rooted in Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine and the editorial content of the Doha-based and -funded Al Jazeera Arabic Satellite TV channel.

His air campaign against Yemen and the Houthis’ economic blockade, where even food convoys have been hit from the air, have produced little headway apart from inflicting untold misery on the civilian population, with human rights organisations decrying cases of severe malnutrition and cholera plaguing children.

For its part, Iran, too, seemed unimpressed for now with Riyadh’s tone and tenor. While its government response was measured, the hard-line Revolutionary Guard matched the Saudi rhetoric word for word and said Iran was ready for all eventualities.

Whereas so far all efforts to build Mohammad bin Salman’s image as a shrewd 21st-century Saudi leader committed to reform within his country and to projecting its power beyond its borders have yielded no tangible results, the timing of the Saudi succession changes was significant.

Perhaps the monarch’s health has taken a turn for the worse, or the young prince was able to convince his father that for the kingdom to move forward the succession issue had to be decided and put to one side, enabling him to consolidate his power during King Salman’s lifetime.

If there are concerns about Saudi policy driven by his youthful exuberance, untempered by experience, there is also cause for optimism as hints are emerging that the kingdom’s young leadership realises what challenges the global spread of its officially sanctioned brand of Islam poses to the world and to the kingdom itself.

If the kingdom’s new leadership can reform its economy and seriously look to block the flow of funds (for example zakat from affluent individuals) to groups outside Saudi Arabia committed to armed jihad, it will have earned respect globally and the right to be taken seriously in the region too.

For now, Saudi efforts to assert itself within the Muslim world via its policies vis-а-vis Qatar, for example, are leading to divisions in the bloc as Turkey and to an extent Iran now seem inclined to support the Qatari position.

One hopes that Mohammad bin Salman’s prize hire, retired Gen Raheel Sharif, can also offer wise counsel to his employer to ensure the region doesn’t plunge into a new conflict after the Syrian tragedy, where millions of innocents are the victims.

It would be a dream to see the young Saudi leadership modernise the kingdom, committing itself to finding ways to restore peaceful coexistence in the region. One hopes all the brashness and bravado was aimed at a domestic audience mainly to consolidate a claim to power and hold on to it.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.


Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2017