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Observers of the Saudi Arabian political scene have witnessed a roller-coaster of a ride over the past year – from the highs of exhilaratingly unexpected enterprises both foreign and domestic, to stomach-churning lows of the depressingly familiar in terms of beheadings, imprisonments and human rights violations.
It was on January 23, 2015 that Salman bin Abdulaziz took over the throne of Saudi Arabia following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah. Already in his 80th year, Salman, who had been crown prince since 2012, was generally considered to be an ultra-conservative. The world’s media expected little to change in Saudi Arabia’s traditionally cautious policies.
They could not have been more wrong. Within a few weeks Salman had dismissed two of his predecessor’s sons as governors of Riyadh and Mecca, eliminated 12 different government committees and councils, and elevated his own favourite son, 29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as both deputy crown prince and defense minister, and placed him as a lead member on two new super-committees overseeing the country’s security and economic affairs.
“King Salman,” said UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, a few weeks into his reign, “has accomplished in 10 days tasks that usually take new leaders 100 days.” Ford M. Fraker, a former US ambassador to the kingdom, followed that up with: “Now, suddenly, change has become the norm.”
How right he was to prove. In the following months, his newly-appointed defense minister took Saudi Arabia into an aggressive confrontation with its long-time regional rival Iran. Under Salman’s guidance, he formed and led a 10-nation coalition to fight Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen, lobbied – albeit unsuccessfully – against Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and in December 2015 hosted a conference in Riyadh aimed at persuading Syria’s opposition factions to agree a common negotiating position for talks that could lead to the departure of Iran’s ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. As part of Salman’s newly assertive foreign policy, Riyadh announced that it might engage its own special forces in the Syrian conflict. If it did, this would be an extraordinary new initiative. The Saudi military has rarely ventured beyond its own borders.
An analysis reviewing Salman’s first year, released in December 2015 by Germany’s foreign intelligence agency the BND, said: “The previous cautious diplomatic stance …is being replaced by a new impulsive policy of intervention,” adding that the kingdom is “prepared to take unprecedented military, financial and political risks.”
That assessment was rejected officially in very short order. “The published assessment does not reflect the position of the German government,” a spokesman asserted, in an astonishing repudiation of the government’s own spy agency. Heads have no doubt rolled, figuratively speaking.
The same could not be said of Saudi Arabia. The mass executions on 2 January, which were for real, incorporated a deliberate poke in Iran’s eye. The beheading of Nimr al-Nimr, a firebrand Shia cleric convicted of “disobedience to the ruler”, aroused the fury of the Iranian leadership. The Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked by a baying horde of people – a government rent-a-mob, according to most commentators. Saudi Arabia immediately broke off all diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Iran, while several of its Arab allies downgraded their links with Tehran in support.
Writing in the Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News, Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, maintained: “The aim of the new Saudi assertive approach is to check Iran’s relentless interferences in Arab affairs.”
Iran, of course, while the leading Shia Muslim nation, is not part of the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia is currently maintaining high oil production, in the face of a global collapse in the price of oil. A BBC report believes it is playing with fire. The Saudis can get oil out of the ground at incredibly low prices, so they are one of the very few countries to still turn a reasonable profit when oil sinks to below $30 a barrel. Iran, Russia and the US shale producers are not in the same happy position.
The Saudi strategy has been to keep pumping to increase market share and weaken their competitors, or even drive them out of business altogether. But the historically low oil prices are wreaking havoc on both the world economy and on the Saudi state budget, now running a deficit of almost $100 billion. Prince Mohammed ‘s answer is to open up the economy and perhaps sell off state assets.
On January 25, 2016 Saudi Arabia outlined ambitious plans to move into industries ranging from information technology to health care and tourism, as it sought to convince international investors it can cope with an era of cheap oil. At a presentation to international businessmen at a luxury Riyadh hotel, top Saudi officials said they intended reducing the kingdom’s dependence on oil and public sector employment. Growth and job creation would shift to the private sector, with state spending helping to jump-start industries in the initial stage.
“It’s going to switch from simple quantitative growth based on commodity exports to qualitative growth that is evenly distributed across the economy,” said Khalid al-Falih, chairman of national oil giant Saudi Aramco.
All these plans, however, are perched over a bubbling cauldron in Saudi’s back kitchen.
Germany’s spy agency, in its blunt and outspoken intelligence analysis, had pointed a finger at the king’s son and defense minister. The report made it clear that the BND suspected Prince Mohammed of harbouring an ambition to secure the royal succession. On that issue, too, it might have grasped the wrong end of the stick, for on January 13, 2016 the Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA) reported, on what it claimed was excellent authority, that Salman was planning to renounce power in favor of his son. The report quoted multiple highly-placed sources which maintained that the issue was likely to be concluded within a matter of weeks.
Should that report be true, Salman would have a number of hurdles to overcome.
The most serious would be to change Saudi’s established order of succession. In Salman’s original reconstitution of the kingdom’s administration, Mohammed had been appointed deputy crown prince. The succession, and with it the title of crown prince, had been bestowed on Salman’s nephew, 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef, who was also appointed Minister of the Interior. For Mohammed to succeed to the throne, Nayef would have to be removed from both positions.
The IGA’s sources apparently reported that King Salman has been visiting his brothers to seek their support for a change in the rules governing the succession, arguing that the stability of the Saudi monarchy requires a new order under which the king hands power to his most eligible son. It is not, perhaps, surprising that surrounding this report are lurid media accounts of plots and palace conspiracies by disaffected members of Saudi Arabia’s vast royal family.
After a year filled with extraordinary and mould-breaking ventures for his kingdom, is King Salman himself preparing the most surprising initiative of all of his short reign?