Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, is a veteran of the country’s top leadership, versed in diplomacy from nearly 50 years as the governor of the capital Riyadh and known as a mediator of disputes within the sprawling royal family.
Salman, 79, had increasingly taken on the duties of the king over the past year as his ailing predecessor and half-brother, Abdullah, became more incapacitated. Abdullah died before dawn Friday at 90 years old.
Salman had served as defence minister since 2011 and so was head of the military as Saudi Arabia joined the United States and other Arab countries in carrying out airstrikes in Syria in 2014 against the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that the kingdom began to see as a threat to its own stability.
He takes the helm at a time when the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom and oil powerhouse is trying to navigate social pressures from a burgeoning youth population — over half the population of 20 million is under 25 — seeking jobs and increasingly testing boundaries of speech on the Internet, where criticism of the royal family is rife.
Salman’s ascension hands throne to yet another aging son of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who is thought to have had more than 50 sons from multiple wives.
Salman’s health has been a question of concern. He suffered at least one stroke that has left him with limited movement on his left arm.
The Saudi throne has for decades passed between Al Saud’s sons. But each succession has brought the kingdom closer to a time when the next generation — Al Saud’s grandsons — will have to take over. The family has successfully managed to close ranks throughout the years, but a generational change raises the spectre of a power struggle by placing the throne in the hands of one branch at the expense of the others.
King Abdullah had carried out a slow but determined series of reforms aimed at modernizing the country, including increasing education and nudging open the margins of rights for women. Salman appears to back those reforms, but he has also voiced concerns about moving too fast.
In a 2007 meeting, he told an outgoing U.S. ambassador that “social and cultural factors” –even more than religious — mean change has to be introduced slowly and with sensitivity, noting the power of the multiple tribes in the kingdom, according to an embassy memo of the meeting leaked by the Wikileaks whistleblower site.
He struck the same theme in a 2010 interview with Karen Elliot House, author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines.” He told her that while Americans are unified by democracy, Saudi Arabia is in essence unified by his family, the Al Sauds. “We can’t have democracy in Saudi Arabia, he said, because if we did every tribe would be a party and then we would be like Iraq and would have chaos,” House told The Associated Press. More