Saudi Arabia under King Salman

Global Centre Stage

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen insists that the major tenets of Saudi domestic and foreign policy will remain relatively unchanged as King Salman tackles a combination of regional security challenges and an era of potentially-lower oil prices

Saudi Arabia underwent a smooth transition of power from King Abdullah to his younger half-brother, King Salman on January 23, 2015. A series of personnel changes and a more thorough reorganisation of government entities signalled the new King’s intent to rule in a distinct manner from his predecessor. This notwithstanding, the major tenets of Saudi domestic and foreign policy will remain relatively unchanged as the new government tackles a combination of regional security challenges and an era of potentially-lower oil prices. Most significantly, the extension of the line of succession to incorporate the eventual shift of power to the next generation removes a major element of uncertainty from long-term planning in the Kingdom.

Along with fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, Saudi Arabia has, over the past decade, emerged as a regional power with international reach. Using their substantive energy resources and capital accumulation during the oil-price boom between 2002 and 2008 as leverage, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE became far more proactive and visible in global issues. These ranged from reshaping the global financial architecture in the aftermath of the 2007-08 crisis to greater involvement in South-South networks against the backdrop of an international order in flux as post-1945 institutions and mechanisms of global governance struggled to maintain their relevance in a poly-centric world. The emergence of the Gulf States as visible global actors thus predated the Arab Spring, but accelerated and acquired a potent new dimension once the initial shock of the 2011 upheaval had subsided.

As a member of the G20 and a leader of both the Arab and the broader Islamic world, Saudi Arabia has played a particularly important role in frameworks of regional and international governance. The substantive inflow of oil revenues into Saudi Arabia in the 1970s facilitated the creation, during the reign of King Faisal (1964-75), of international Islamic institutions and networks. These extended the Kingdom’s ‘soft power’ trans-nationally and encompassed the Muslim World League (1962), the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (1972), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (1972), and the International Islamic Relief Organisation (1975). A generation later, as the largest oil exporter and most important swing producer, the Kingdom won praise for its role in moderating oil prices during the volatile swings of 2008-09 and played an important role in recapitalising Western financial institutions. Saudi officials also joined with counterparts from India and China to increase the voting powers of emerging economies in the International Monetary Fund at the expense of overrepresented developed states.

Government Restructuring

The biggest (and most immediate) changes made by King Salman concerned the removal of several top officials linked closely to the late King Abdullah. The most notable casualty was the Chief of the Royal Court, Khalid al-Tuwayjri, who for years had functioned as the influential ‘gatekeeper’ with responsibility for controlling access to the monarch. In addition, King Salman removed two of King Abdullah’s sons (Prince Turki bin Abdullah and Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah) from their respective Governorships of Riyadh and Mecca and stripped the mercurial Bandar bin Sultan of his last remaining post as head of the National Security Council. Moreover, the new King moved rapidly to end any lingering uncertainty about the long-term line of succession. Just hours into his reign, Salman named his nephew, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Deputy Crown Prince. This act mapped for the first time a pathway of succession beyond the current Crown Prince Muqrin to the grandsons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Three features stand out from the reshuffling of senior posts and the new government announced by King Salman a week after taking power. The first is the startling rise to prominence of one of the King’s younger sons, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who replaced his father as Minister of Defence and Khalid al-Tuwayjri as Secretary-General of the Royal Court. At 35, Mohammed bin Salman has been entrusted with a heavy responsibility and, at such a young age, has bypassed many far more senior princes in the extended royal family. This may yet cause friction and pushback from branches of the Al Saud that feel marginalised by Salman. Meanwhile, the second characteristic of the new Saudi government was the introduction of a new cadre of technocrats whom Salman had cultivated for several years prior to becoming King.

While the key positions of oil, finance, and foreign affairs remained unchanged, the influx of a wave of mostly young new ministers spearheaded a wide-ranging shift in the functioning of the Saudi government. Their entrance into government tied into the third notable point about the restructuring, namely the creation of two powerful new committees – a Council of Political and Security Affairs headed by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and a Council of Economic and Development Affairs led by Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The councils were the cornerstone of reforms announced by King Salman and represented an attempt to broaden the policy process and make it more accountable to collective decision-making.

Domestic Continuity

King Salman will differ from his predecessor more in the style of rule rather than in the substance of any major shift in domestic policy. King Abdullah was known for a series of measures that incrementally empowered women in Saudi Arabia and gradually expanded the opportunities available to them in the public sphere. Among the most noteworthy were the 2011 promise that women would be able to vote in the next municipal council election (scheduled for 2015) and the 2013 appointment of thirty women to the Consultative Council (Majlis as-Shura). Other reforms to the judicial and education sectors under King Abdullah licensed women to practice law and enabled tens of thousands of women to study abroad on government scholarships. During Abdullah’s ten-year reign, large numbers of Saudi women entered the workforce and broke through several barriers. These included the appointment of the first female CEO (Dr. Nahed Taher at Gulf One Investment Bank) in October 2013 and the first female Saudi newspaper editor (Somayya Jabarti at Saudi Gazette) in February 2014.

It is unlikely that King Salman will push these boundaries in the same manner as his predecessor. Decisions such as the reinstatement of a cleric removed by King Abdullah for his opposition to the opening of the mixed-gender King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in 2009 suggest a rebalancing toward social and religious conservatism in the Kingdom. Moreover, attention should be paid to the future of the two signature programs that bore King Abdullah’s name – KAUST and the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP). Both KAUST and KASP were at the forefront of efforts to introduce socio-economic change in a careful and incremental manner. While they are expected to continue, any prolonged period of lower oil prices may see them scaled back in size. A further litmus test of the new government’s position on the pace and scale of change will be whether women are indeed allowed to take part in the 2015 municipal elections.

The above notwithstanding, the restructuring of the Saudi government is part of a broader initiative to make public services more outward-facing, innovative, and adaptive to changing user demand. This has involved the introduction of mobile ‘m-government’ as well as the greater use of ‘e-government’ through the launch of numerous services that have enabled the public to interact with government officials in a manner previously very largely absent in Saudi. In a country with one of the highest Twitter penetration rates and also one of the youngest populations in the world, such moves indicate that Saudi officials acknowledge that the digital era poses new challenges to policy formulation and public management. One of these challenges is the relationship between central and local government, and the above mentioned reforms represent an attempt to make public service delivery more responsive to local needs and bridge the gap between Riyadh and the regions in Saudi Arabia.

Oil policy is expected to continue largely unchanged with a focus on defending market share and adapting to an era of lower prices, which are expected to stabilise between $60-70 per barrel. What will change will be the level of control exercised by King Salman over oil policy, traditionally the preserve of powerful and longstanding technocrats. Both the promotion of one of King Salman’s sons, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman, to deputy oil minister and the scrapping of the Supreme Petroleum Council suggest that the King will exercise a close watch over oil policy.

Regional Challenges

Reform of domestic structures was made more urgent by the sustained political upheaval that has swept much of the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since early 2011. The impact of the Arab Spring on the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was limited to an uprising in Bahrain that was contained (but not fully resolved) by a Saudi-led security intervention in March 2011. Elsewhere, however, Saudi has been buffeted by political and security crises on its northern and southern borders in Iraq and Yemen respectively as well as by the blowback from the rise of Islamic State militancy that has spread from Syria into Iraq. A string of incidents inside Saudi in late 2014 and early 2015 illustrate the sensitive security dilemma facing the Kingdom from the intersection of internal and regional threats to stability.

King Abdullah responded to the Arab Spring domestically by announcing two welfare packages worth more than $130 billion and regionally by seeking to forge a closer political union among the six GCC states. The domestic measures succeeded in preventing any large-scale unrest within Saudi, with the partial exception of Shia-majority areas of the oil-rich eastern province and sporadic protests in central and southern provinces. The regional response was far less fruitful as an unprecedented mid-year GCC Summit held in Riyadh in May 2012 failed to achieve consensus on moving toward closer union. Moreover, a growing rift with Qatar over the latter’s perceived support of political Islamists across the region culminated in the withdrawal of the Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati ambassadors from Doha in March 2014 and a crisis in internal GCC relations that lasted for most of the year and greatly damaged the organisation’s unity.

Over the past year from early 2014, the startling rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and the progressive collapse of central governmental control in Yemen have underscored the dangers facing Saudi on its immediate northern and southern boundaries. Nearly a decade after Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was defeated in Saudi and banished to Yemen; the Kingdom confronts a new terrorist challenge. A spate of recent attacks suggests that the threat posed by IS to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states arises primarily from ‘lone wolf’ operations.

However, the Kingdom faces a deeper challenge both internally from networks of IS cells and externally from the flow of Saudi nationals to the IS battlefront in Iraq and Syria. Having spent much of the past decade lamenting the plight of Iraq’s Sunni communities and most of 2012 and 2013 channelling support to Sunni rebel groups in Syria, Saudi officials find themselves caught in a geopolitical straightjacket. Policymakers are aware that tactical involvement in the international coalition against IS sits uneasily alongside strategic sympathy with the re-empowerment of Sunnism in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, the gap is likely to widen if the military campaign against IS expands and US forces operating from bases in the Gulf get drawn deeper into the conflict. This presents a policy dilemma that will not be resolved easily.

Regional policy under King Salman, therefore, will continue to focus on counterterrorism measures to minimise the threat of spill over of violence into Saudi Arabia and attempts to contain the spread of Iranian influence in Yemen. Policy on Syria will be characterised by continuity rather than change as the major shift in position predated the change of leadership occurred in early 2014 when the activist stance of Prince Bandar bin Sultan in supporting the creation of an Islamic Army gave way to the counterterrorism approach spearheaded by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Greater fluidity may be expected in Saudi policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood as the hard-line approach adopted by King Abdullah gives way to a more pragmatic policy of engagement. The escalating political crisis and security vacuum in Yemen will become an increasingly urgent policy challenge for Saudi Arabia in light of the empowerment of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Sana’a. Saudi officials will work through the GCC and bilaterally to prop up the embattled Yemeni President, Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, and blunt any attempted expansion of Iran’s regional influence. This will result in the de facto partition of Yemen between Houthi militants in Sana’a and the Hadi regime in Aden, with Iran and Saudi Arabia actively supporting the two sides.

Go to Content Page


Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Ph.D., is Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and Associate Fellow, Chatham House.

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.