In his first speech as monarch, the new Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz pledged continuity for the kingdom’s oil and other policies Friday, Jan. 23, upon acceding to the throne following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah. During his ten-year reign, the late king, a strong, shrewd and measured ruler, navigated the kingdom on a steady course in a turbulent neighborhood.
He also made sure the succession would be smooth, swift and safe for the long term. The new king, aged 79, and in poor health, was provided with a younger man (in relative Saudi terms) as a prop. Muqrin, who is in his late 60s is the new crown prince.
Abdullah was largely responsible for oil prices plummeting 50 percent in the past year. As the world’s largest crude exporter, he led OPEC in refusing to cut production in order to boost prices. King Salman will have to show he can stand up to heavy arm-twisting by Iran and Russia, who are hit by the low prices, to reduce production levels.
As the kingdom prepared to bury its king in Riyadh in a traditionally austere Wahhabi funeral, oil prices climbed briefly before settling. But to avoid volatility, the oil markets will be keeping a sharp eye on the stability of the new royal administration.
The new king also moved quickly to name another of his half-brothers, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, Deputy Crown Prince, placing him second in line to the throne after Prince Muqrin, and transferring the succession in the coming years to the third generation of the House of Saud.
In making this appointment, King Salman had more than stability in mind: He was intent on preserving the peace within the royal house among its rival factions by preserving the custom of alternating the throne between offspring of the Sudeiri and non-Sudeiri branches of the royal family.
Salman and Mohammed are Sudeiris, whereas Muqrin, like Abdullah before him, is not. Abdullah tried to push his own son, Muteib bin Abdullah, Minister of the National Guard, into the third slot. He failed.
Another important appointment announced Friday was King Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister, a step which Abdullah did his best to thwart.
Salman’s son has impressed Gulf sources as one of the most ambitious princes in the top level of the royal hierarchy. He is already collecting plum positions. Along with the defense portfolitio, his father also let him stay on as chief of the royal bureau and special adviser to the king, positions he held when King Salman was crown prince.
Salman Junior is therefore expected to be a powerful wire-puller in state affairs under his father, his leverage gaining as the king’s health declines.
Another important change at the new royal court Friday was the dismissal of Khalid al-Tuwaijri, strongman and chef de bureau of the late king Abdullah. Tuwaijri stood at his right hand in making policy and was a prime mover in advancing and dropping different princes up and down the power ladder.
Getting him out of the way – even before he had a chance to hand the job over to his successor – attested to uncertainties in the new king’s close circle about his ability to take charge.
Stability and continuity are vital messages for Salman and his government to project. Hours before Abdullah died, the presidential palace of neighboring Yemen in Sanaa was seized by Shiite Houthi rebels in a coup backed by Iran. The president who was supported by Riyadh resigned, leaving the Houthis a convenient base for launching terror against Saudi Arabia from its southern border.
From the north, the kingdom is menaced by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which will no doubt exploit any hesitations in Riyadh to strike, aided by a fifth column of the jhadist movment’s followers inside the kingdom.
Last month, Saudi-born adherents of ISIS attacked the northern town of Arar near the Iraqi border and killed four members of the border guard.
The big trouble looming over all these perils is a potentially nuclear-armed Iran seeking to snatch Gulf hegemony from Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah dealt harshly with dissidents, but he also doled out funds lavishly to avert unrest at home. The new king must come to grips with restive young people, many of whom are drawn to the radical Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, including radical members of the Saudi clergy.
All these and other groups will be testing the new king’s resolve and his willingness to continue the steps pursued by his predecessor for keeping the realm on a steady course in very rough seas.