Challenges Await Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in the Wake of King Abdullah’s Death

By Nicole Auger, Forecast International

As Saudi Arabia and the international community mourn the death of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, we are reminded of his reign and what it meant for Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy ruled by a single royal family: the House of Saud. The Saud family, which controls the political and administrative functions of the country, comprises about 40,000 members, of whom 8,000 are designated princes. The family members holding key positions of power include the first deputy prime minister, the crown prince, the second deputy prime minister, the defense and aviation minister, the interior minister, and the commander of the National Guard. Presiding over an absolute monarchical government, the king makes all final decisions on matters of state and government.

King Abdullah served as Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader for 10 years prior to officially being crowned after King Fahd bin Abdulaziz suffered a debilitating stroke in late 1995. After Fahd died in August 2005, the 82-year-old Abdullah was quickly designated king.

King Abdullah has been acknowledged for a number of forward-thinking initiatives, which made him stand out from his predecessors. Notably, his government was praised by the international community during the 2011 Arab Spring protests for taking a more responsive approach to citizens’ demands for improvement in economic opportunities, political rights, and social conditions. Instead of employing an aggressive stance toward public protestors as other Middle Eastern and Northern African leaders did, King Abdullah launched $36 billion worth of programs that would bring new jobless benefits, education and housing subsidies, and debt write-offs in order to satisfy citizens’ demands. Furthermore, in terms of women’s rights, during King Abdullah’s reign women were granted the right to vote, to run in municipal elections, to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council – the most influential political body in the kingdom, and to compete in the Olympics.

Despite these positive factors, however, King Abdullah did fail to implement other major changes. Most importantly, perhaps, Saudi citizens still lack fundamental rights such as freedom of speech. This subject has come more to light recently, after Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer and activist, was sentenced in 2014 to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison, and a fine for running a liberal website dedicated to freedom of speech. The incident was a reminder of Saudi Arabia’s use of outdated and over-the-top punishments, which also include public beheadings and floggings, against those accused of unlawful behavior.

Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King Abdullah’s half-brother, will now be in charge of the largest and wealthiest country in the tumultuous region. Looking forward, King Salman is expected to face some major challenges and security concerns – concerns that have spurred defense investment to the point that the country now represents one of the largest arms markets in the world. Saudi defense spending is easily the highest in the Middle East in nominal terms.

The major threats to security include internal al-Qaeda sleeper cells, the minority Shiite population in the oil-rich eastern part of the country, regional rival Iran, and the rapidly growing Islamic State movement. However, King Salman, who prior to being crowned served as defense minister, seems well suited for the job. He indirectly addressed the threat of rising violence and regional instability on January 23 in his first speech since becoming king, saying that “the Arab and Islamic nation is in dire need today to be united and maintain solidarity.”

Overall, the kingdom has come a long way under King Abdullah and is now a modern state by most standards. It is unlikely that this shift in leadership will lead to serious instability or to changes in Saudi Arabia’s defense and other initiatives.

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