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What’s next for Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah’s death?

Alia Soliman , Friday 23 Jan 2015
Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (Photo: AP)
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As the world mourns the custodian of the two Holy mosques, Saudi King Abdullah, his successor Crown Prince Salman, 79, must face the long-term challenges of the oil-rich kingdom. 

After the death of King Abdullah, 90, the question of succession was once again brought up for the House of Saud, and how smooth could it happen.

King Abdullah formed the Allegiance Council in 2006, to decide collectively on succession; however, analysts were divided regarding whether tensions exacerbated within the House of Saud after the king’s death.

Abdullah’s next heir, Prince Moqrin, was a close confidant of Abdullah and has good relations with the US; however, he himself is also elderly.

Salman is also facing numerous health problems and this, combined with the fact that all the other possible successors are elderly, has led many to argue that Saudi is running out of royal brothers.

Among the long-term challenges Salman now faces is the Saudi population's rapid growth, increasing unemployment,  and an economy that has been overly dependent on oil revenues.

In addition he must get to grips with the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia's role in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. Abdullah’s successor will also face an intensifying crisis in Yemen.

Despite health problems, Salman appears in public as a strong figure.

However, Fahad Nazer, political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, told Ahram Online that Salman has a wealth of experience and seems to be generally popular among Saudis.

"Unless his health deteriorates rapidly, I expect a smooth succession," Nazer told Ahram Online.

Moqrin, the next heir, was a close and trusted adviser to King Abdullah. His relative youth, extensive experience in government and knowledge of the West make him an attractive candidate. He also exudes a rather affable persona and appears to be a generally popular figure among many Saudis.

Joseph A. Kechichian, a political scientist specialising in the Persian Gulf region, says that Salman and his half-brother Prince Moqrin will both receive the oath of loyalty first from the Allegiance Council, then from the rest of the ruling family, and finally from the overwhelming majority of the Saudi population.

The council, formed in 2006 by the late king, represents each branch of the Al-Saud family, who vote on approving King Abdullah's nominated heir.

In his first public address, Salman pledged on Friday that there would be no change in the kingdom's direction and called for unity among Muslims.

Kechichian told Ahram Online that there is no concrete evidence that tensions have exacerbated within the ruling family.

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia's Royal Family (Photo: wsj.com)

However Ali Al Ahmed, Saudi scholar and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs told Ahram Online that tensions are obvious and that an increasing number of Al-Saud’s second generation were clamouring to gain influence or protect what they already have.

Andrew Hammond, Middle East analyst and author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, believes however that tensions will ease.

"I think the most likely scenario is that the schemes and games will operate within the framework Abdullah has worked out, I think the family, despite their disputes, is savvy enough to realise that squabbling about these basics would be disastrous. So it's really a game of which grandson comes after Moqrin,"

Relations with the US

The US and Saudi Arabia have been close allies since World War II and therefore having a generation who will maintain relations with the US is a criterion that the king or any candidate for the throne must have.

Hammond believes that late king wanted to ingratiate Minister of the National Guard Miteb to the Americans before he died. However, Minister of the Interior Mohammed bin Nayef is already well known to the US administration and well-liked, and Salman as king could ensure that bin Nayef comes next in line after Moqrin.

Saudi Arabia is part of a US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against Islamic State group militants in Syria and Iraq, and experts say the strategic alliance is likely to continue, AFP reported.

"I see the general contours of US-Saudi relations, particularly against IS, as remaining fairly solid," said Frederic Wehrey, a Gulf expert at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Members of the Al-Saud dynasty "share the same world view but may differ slightly over matters of strategy and tactics," he added.

Nazar was fascinated to see Prince Miteb and Prince Muhammad Bin Naif visit the US and meet with President Obama mere weeks apart. Prince Muhammad Bin Naif appears to be the best positioned among the "next generation" of princes to ascend the throne. He has ample experience and good contacts in the West.

Soon after the death of the king was confirmed; Obama hailed him as warm and a candid friend, and according to AFP praised Abdullah's "steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the US-Saudi relationship."

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