Most of the steps taken by the new Saudi King Salman are hard to fathom. When he addressed the last cabinet meeting in Riyadh on Feb. 2, Salman told his ministers that there would be no changes in royal foreign policy.
He did not elaborate, which left Saudi experts guessing about exactly where he was going.
Was he referring to the bad albeit vital military relations with the United States? Would he continue to seek a nuclear option as a counterweight to Iran? What about the warm strategic ties with Egypt established by his predecessor Abdullah? And what was his policy on oil output in relation to world prices?
Would Saudi Arabia stay in the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State and continue to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood?
None of those questions have been answered yet. Both the king and President Barack Obama have been exceptionally tight lipped after their encounter Tuesday, Jan. 27. And so no clue to the Salman conundrum has come either from Riyadh or Washington.
As crown prince, Salman visited Washington three years ago and met Obama for the first time.
That encounter occasioned the first rumors put out by American Saudi experts that the prince was suffering from dementia.
Salman starts his reign with spirited action – far from “dementia”
After he was crowned king on Jan. 23, he was dogged by the same experts, who determined that he was unfit to assume the reins of power in the oil kingdom. This negative climate may have reflected the coolness in some Washington circles to the new monarch.
But a few days later, Salman showed he had a firm grip on those reins after all and a mind for running the kingdom his way.
His meeting with Obama upon attaining the throne clearly did not herald any positive change in the cool relations between the palace in Riyadh and the White House in Washington. More of the same appears to be in store in the near future, i.e., sharp differences as before, interspersed with limited ad hoc cooperation on certain issues of mutual interest.
On Jan. 29, just six days after Abdullah’s death and Salman’s coronation, the new king issued a flood of new royal appointments encompassing government, provincial governates, the security services, and education, public and academic institutions. They were accompanied by a spate of corresponding dismissals.
This was the first time Saudi Arabia had seen so many new appointments taking place at such high speed.
They provided the first faint clues to the new king’s predilections.
First clues to a conservative bent in domestic policy
Most significant and least noticed in the West, was the dismissal of education minister Prince Khaled
al-Faisal, who made his mark by improving standards of general schooling and reforms that removed radical religious symbols from the curriculum.
The prince was sent back to his former job as Governor of Mecca and replaced by the journalist Azam al-Dakhil, a crony of the new king, who was formerly employed by the Saudi Research & Marketing Group, in which one of Salman’s sons owns a 7% stake.
The justice minister and “morality police” chief – both moderate clerics who fought against radical tendencies – were sacked.
But the radical cleric Sheikh Saad al-Shathry was appointed adviser to the royal court.
Al Shathry was fired by Abdullah in 2009 from his high position in the council of clergy, for criticizing the introduction of co-education at the high-prestige King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.
In the view of DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi experts, it is beginning to look as though King Salman may be dropping his predecessor’s tough stance against the radical circles within the clerical establishment and is nstead cultivating them through dialogue.
Foreign steps should shed more light on Salman’s style of government
If that is the case, he will be reverting to the course followed by King Fahd, whose reign preceded that of Abdullah, and was adopted by two late cabinet members who belonged to the same Sudeiri clan as the new king, former Defense Minister Sultan and Interior Minister Nayef.
The past royal policy of consorting closely with the extremist members of the Saudi clergy has often been credited in the West as creating fertile ground for the rise of Al Qaeda in the kingdom.
Still, it is early days to judge exactly where the new king is heading after less than a month on the throne. There is no knowing how deeply he sympathizes with the conservative and extremist sections of the religious establishment and how far he is willing to go to appease them.
But pointers to this prospect and also to his regional policies may be found in the extent to which he follows, or discards, Abdullah’s friendly approach to Egypt and quiet cooperation with Israel.