Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

New king, same challenges

Challenging issues await King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, reports Doaa El-Bey

Al-Sisiand King Abdullah
Al-Sisiand King Abdullah
Al-Ahram Weekly

Salman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, 80, was crowned the new king of Saudi Arabia last Friday upon the death of his half-brother Abdullah at the age of 90. His ascension to power has raised many questions about the future of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family and the region, perhaps the most important being whether there will be changes in Saudi policies under the new monarch.

“The stability of Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest Sunni Arab states, the largest producer of oil and the house of the two holy shrines, is crucial for the stability of the whole Arab region,” said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He did not expect to see major changes in Saudi policies under Salman, given that he had been Saudi crown prince since 2012, was in charge of state affairs when Abdullah was incapacitated by illness last year, and was taking the throne amid unprecedented regional instability and the threat of terrorism from inside and outside the kingdom.

In his first speech as Saudi monarch, Salman said, “We will continue to adhere to the correct policies that Saudi Arabia has followed since its founding.” He did not mention threats in his speech, but said, “The Arab and Islamic nation is in need of unity and solidarity.”

With the on-going war in Syria, the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) gaining control of parts of Iraq, the growing power of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and increasing tensions with Iran, King Salman is expected to have his hands full as the new Saudi monarch.

There are also domestic challenges, and Saudi Arabia has been threatened by terrorist attacks by Saudi radicals influenced or trained by IS, Al-Qaeda or other extremist groups.

Some Saudi citizens have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight with IS and then crossed the nearly 600-mile frontier that runs mainly through empty desert to carry out attacks against their own country.

The dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate, propagated by IS, appeals to many Saudis, as well as other Arabs. “Some Saudi and other Arabs see in IS a Sunni Muslim force that can protect Sunnis against what has been happening in Iraq, Syria and Yemen,” the diplomat said.

Although Riyadh has taken measures to reduce the terrorism threat, it is still present. Since the start of the war in Syria, and especially after the formation of IS, Riyadh beefed up border security with Iraq and issued new laws that give the government broad powers to arrest those who join or defend IS or other radical groups.

The border security system was initially conceived as a defence against the sectarian war that erupted in Iraq more than a decade ago, but is now primarily seen as a defence against IS.

Saudi Arabia has also made moves to protect its borders with Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen, and it has been made illegal for imams in the country’s mosques to give sermons that seem to sympathise with religious extremists.

Official control of charities suspected of channelling money to radicals has also been tightened.

Saudi relations with the US are expected to remain unchanged under King Salman. The present tense regional situation means that Washington needs Saudi Arabia as much as the Saudis need the US.

Saudi Arabia has backed the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, and the two countries are concerned about developments in Yemen, which last week led to the fall of the capital, the US-backed government and the presidential palace into the hands of Houthi rebels.

US President Barack Obama was among world leaders who came to Saudi Arabia to offer their condolences on the death of King Abdullah last week. Obama cut short a visit to India and led a US delegation to Riyadh, where he discussed with new King Salman issues including the turmoil in Yemen and the fight against IS.

While Saudi relations with Arab states are not expected to change, efforts boosted by late king Abdullah to improve Egyptian-Qatari relations could be slowed down. The issue of possible Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement came to the fore in November last year when Abdullah called on Egypt to follow Riyadh in ending its disputes with Qatar.

King Abdullah’s calls came after an agreement was reached to put an end to the worst diplomatic rift to have hit the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in years. The agreement was supposed to pave the way for a return of the Saudi, Bahraini, UAE and Egyptian diplomatic missions to Doha.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March last year, after they accused Qatar of interfering in their internal affairs and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt withdrew its ambassador one month earlier.

“King Abdullah’s death may impede or delay efforts to reconcile Egypt and Qatar, especially when the main issues of difference are still unresolved. For instance, Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups in Libya is still a hurdle to any rapprochement,” the diplomat said.

In the wake of King Abdullah’s death, observers have stressed that the smooth transfer of power from King Abdullah to King Salman and the handing of important positions, such as minister of defence, to the grandsons of King Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, proves that the Al-Saud family is as strong as ever and is firmly in control of Saudi Arabia.

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