Portraits of King Salman Bin Abdulaziz (center), Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef (right) and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud are displayed on the wall of a restaurant in Riyadh. (Jordan Pix/Getty Images)

Who Are the New Faces of the Saudi Monarchy?

March 29, 2016
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

It’s sometimes said that change doesn’t come quickly in Saudi Arabia.

However, in the 14 months since taking power, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has set in motion a period of transition for the Saudi kingdom. He has restructured government ministries, introduced a range of economic reforms and taken an active stance on foreign policy — most visibly in a costly, and increasingly complex war in neighboring Yemen.

Experts say it is still too early to assess the long-term implications of these moves, but what’s clear, they argue, is that King Salman’s early actions have been designed to solidify the monarchy, reassert the kingdom’s influence in the region and safeguard the country from fast-changing economic headwinds.

FROM GOVERNOR TO KING 

King Salman became Saudi Arabia’s head of state after the death of King Abdullah on Jan. 23, 2015. For nearly five decades, Salman served as governor of Riyadh, before becoming defense minister and later crown prince.

“If you compare his style to King Abdullah, he’s less of a father figure than Abdullah was, and more of a man who’s overseeing a transition period,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “He’s been fast-moving in the way he’s wanted to reorganize a bunch of government departments and ministries, firing a lot of the old princes, getting a lot of new guys in.”

Within a week of ascending to the throne, Salman undertook a major governmental reshuffle aimed at consolidating authority. Months later, he changed the royal line of succession, replacing his half-brother, who was next in line to the throne, with his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and making his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, second in line. As part of the reorganization, Nayef and Salman were each given broad new authority over domestic affairs and national security in addition to serving as interior minister and defense minister, respectively.

AN ECONOMIC TEST

The most immediate and pressing domestic problem for the new government has been plummeting oil prices — which have fallen from $100 a barrel to less than $40 a barrel in the last year-and-a-half — and the impact they’ll have on the government’s generous subsidies and social welfare programs. An estimated 90 percent of Saudi Arabia’s revenue comes from oil, which makes up around 40 percent of the overall GDP.

When oil prices were still booming, Saudi citizens enjoyed subsidized gas (at a cost of roughly 49 cents a gallon), water, electricity and lavish bonuses. But the plunge in gas prices has pushed the cash-strapped government to cut subsidies in recent months. Fuel prices are now projected to rise as much as 50 percent for Saudi citizens, and for the first time ever, many Saudis could soon be forced to pay new taxes.

“The every day life of a Saudi will change in the next 18 months or so,” Stephens said. “It’s a big deal because these things are going to hurt. These people will not be able to save money at the end of every month. They’ll not be able to send their kids to good universities without large government scholarships.”

Behind the economic response has been Prince Salman, the king’s influential 30-year-old son.

“He’s trying to cast himself as the country’s major reformer, and he’s very ambitious,” said David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center.

“He’s very keen to be seen as doing the right thing,” added Stephens. “He genuinely wants to move the country forward.”

Yet Salman’s role as the public face of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen has made him a target of criticism. In December, Germany’s intelligence agency issued a report blaming the deputy crown prince for “an impulsive policy of intervention.” Fighting in Yemen has left more than 3,200 civilians dead, with the United Nations’ human rights chief blaming the Saudi-led coalition for “twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together.”

There’s a lot at stake for him in Yemen’s war, Ottaway said. “If Yemen turns out to be a huge mess, it isn’t going to do much to convince senior members of the royal family that he has what it takes” to be king.

Indeed, Yemen has become Saudi Arabia’s “defining conflict,” according to Stephens. “They’re wasting a lot of money down there, and they’re bleeding as well … This is not a cheap war for them and if they’re not going to deliver some political results, it’s going to be quite difficult for them.”

However, Saudi Arabia sees the intervention as a way to stand up to Iran — because it views Yemen’s Houthi rebels as Iran’s proxies — and to re-assert its interests in the Middle East in response to what some in the kingdom see as a U.S. withdrawal from the region.

“They tend to perceive Iran as their major challenge,” Ottaway said. “They see Iran behind the Houthi takeover in Yemen last year. You know the way Americans used to see a Soviet spy behind every tree? Well, they see an Iranian behind every sand dune.”

A year after the intervention began, there are signs that a resolution in Yemen may be close. The warring parties have agreed to a cessation of hostilities beginning on April 10, and peace talks, and went through with a prisoner swap on Monday.

THE THREAT FROM EXTREMISM

But while fighting in Yemen could soon come to an end, the kingdom continues to struggle with the threat of Islamic extremism from both Al Qaeda and ISIS. The Saudis participated in air strikes as part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in 2014, before their involvement in Yemen. In December, they announced the formation of a 34-member anti-terror coalition, though it remains unclear what the coalition will do.

Leading the response to the terror threat is Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, well known abroad for his past work as the kingdom’s counterterrorism chief and his role in quelling the threat of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Al Qaeda in 2009.

The crown prince has strengthened his position in the areas that he controls, according to Stephens, from internal and external security of Saudi Arabia to cooperation with the West on counterterrorism. Nayef has been in charge of the kingdom’s Syria policy, its fight against Al Qaeda, and increasingly ISIS, which is estimated to have attracted 2,500 Saudi citizens.

But its his role as head of the Ministry of the Interior that’s considered most influential.

“The Ministry of the Interior basically is the country,” Stephens said. “It’s a massive ministry that controls every aspect of a Saudi’s life, right down to the bare bones of their driving licenses, fines and the religious police.”

“He’s been absolutely key to the internal stability of the country,” Ottaway said.

With an eye on stability — and wary of the Arab Spring protests that swept through the Middle East in 2011 and the chaos that followed in many countries — experts say the monarchy has moved to repress political dissent and protests. The dissident cleric Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr, considered the spiritual leader of Saudi Arabia’s Shia-led Arab Spring protests in 2011, was executed on terrorism charges earlier this year. In 2015, among other cases, a prominent writer was arrested after discussing reform proposals on TV, and a court sentenced a Palestinian poet to death for “blasphemous statements,” according to Human Rights Watch. The organization says dozens of activists have been imprisoned in the country for advocating for reforms.

“They’ve really kind of battened down the hatches on all opposition — Shia, Islamic extremists, and liberals,” Ottaway said. “They’re not about to allow any kind of public debate that challenges the royal family and its ruling of the country.”

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