Diplomatic Connections Articles

Continuity, Stability and Security are the Goals of Saudi Arabia's Succession

King Salman Begins His Reign as World Leaders Pay Respects in Riyadh
By F. Lewis Bristol

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud brought a procession of world leaders to Riyadh, both to express their condolences to the Saudi royal family and to reinforce relationships with the desert kingdom. The country finds itself surrounded by regional instability, at the center of the global energy economy, and seeking a balance between the forces of cultural tradition and the realities of rapidly evolving communications technologies with an ever better educated population at home.

The touchstone of Saudi Arabia’s power and influence has always been oil, especially its oil reserves. But the global energy market is changing in myriad ways and, for the moment at least, the price of oil is hovering around $50 a barrel as the global energy market is suddenly experiencing a supply glut because of new extraction technologies as well as the growth of alternative, sustainable energy sources. Ironically, as energy prices have dropped, Saudi Arabia’s global political importance has grown rather than diminished.

Facing a significant challenge for regional leadership from Iran; a measure of democracy, for good or ill; a measure of chaos and the rise of religious extremism — results of the Arab Spring movements; surrounded by the instability of neighboring states and the emergence of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) alongside AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula); and faced with mounting pressures for social, economic and political change at home, Saudi Arabia finds itself confronted with a maelstrom of forces demanding attention and having impact far beyond the Kingdom’s borders.

It was a measure of just how important Saudi Arabia has become in global politics that dozens of world leaders from the Arab and broader Islamic worlds, Europe, North and South America as well as Asia were keen to offer their condolences at King Abdullah’s death while offering their respects to his successor, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Beyond the presence of the U.S. delegation, the British Prime Minister David Cameron came as did Prince Charles, French President François Hollande made the journey, King Felipe VI of Spain was there, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin sent both his condolences and his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came as well as Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it is exemplary enough to make the point that Saudi Arabia is a key member of the G-20 group of leading economic players and that much of the world sees Saudi Arabia as a key component to establishing regional security in the Middle East, attenuating the extremism that claims Islamic religious identity as well as burgeoning Islamophobia across the world, and helping to stabilize the global energy economy.

President Barack Obama cut short an official visit to India in order to head an official delegation going to Riyadh. Obama noted that, “King Abdullah’s life spanned from before the birth of modern Saudi Arabia through its emergence as a critical force within the global economy and a leader among Arab and Islamic nations. He took bold steps in advancing the Arab Peace Initiative, an endeavor that will outlive him as an enduring contribution to the search for peace in the region. At home,” Obama added, “King Abdullah’s vision was dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world.”

As if to reinforce the future of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, President Obama recalled that, “As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship. As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.”

Secretary of State John Kerry observed that, “The United States has lost a friend, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and the world has lost a revered leader. King Abdullah was a man of wisdom and vision.” Kerry recalled how he valued his visits with King Abdullah, “Even as he battled age and illness, he held on to his sense of determination. His stories of his father and of his family were remarkable. He was so proud of the Kingdom’s journey, a brave partner in fighting violent extremism who proved just as important as a proponent of peace.”

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon expressed the U.N.’s gratitude for King Abdullah’s generous support for the organization’s humanitarian relief efforts and developmental assistance programs in the Arab region and across the world. The Secretary General recalled King Abdullah’s efforts to address regional and global challenges at a time of turmoil and rapid change. King Abdullah’s proposed Arab Peace Plan, Ban said, left a “tangible legacy” that can show a path toward peace in the Middle East, and his efforts to promote dialogue among the world’s religious faiths have served to open new avenues of exploration and scholarship.

Russian President Vladimir Putin observed that the King's death was a great loss to the Kingdom and Saudi people. “The deceased king was known as a wise and consistent statesman and politician, a leader loved and respected by his people and had a deserved authority on the international scene,” Putin added. “His Majesty ruled the country effectively and successfully through important stages of its development and did much to improve the socio-economic situation of the [Saudi] people, to develop the country's public institutions and to fight against terrorism at different levels.” Putin recalled that his meetings with King Abdullah in Riyadh and in Moscow had been productive and “confirmed the traditional friendly nature of bilateral Russian-Saudi relations.”

In France, a statement issued by the Elysée Palace on behalf of President François Hollande described King Abdullah as “a statesman whose work has profoundly marked the history of his country.” With the death of King Abdullah coming just days after the Charlie Hebdo and related killings in Paris, the French condolence insisted that the King’s “vision of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East remains more relevant than ever.” The message concluded by noting that, “The head of state [Hollande] expresses his sincere condolences to the Saudi people and expresses his commitment to the friendship between France and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

It is instructive that King Salman’s first address to the people of Saudi Arabia after ascending the throne emphasized continuity. “We will continue,” Salman affirmed, “with God’s grace and strength, committed to the true approach which was followed by this state since its inception at the hands of its founder, King Abdulaziz, God’s mercy be upon him, and at the hands of his sons after him, God’s mercy upon them.”

Even as he affirmed the past, King Salman alluded to the immediate challenges that face his country. “The Arab and Islamic nation is in dire need today to be united and maintain solidarity. We will continue in this country that God has honored by choosing it as a platform for His message and as the direction Muslims must pray. Our march,” King Salman asserted, “is to undertake everything possible to keep the unity of our ranks and the unity of word and [to work] in defense of our nation’s interests, guided by the teachings of our true Islamic religion which was favored by the Lord to us, the religion of peace, mercy and moderation.”

When King Abdullah assumed the throne, foreign observers anticipated that he would be quite conservative. Instead, he proved to be a cautious reformer who invested heavily in the education of his people, establishing the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as a world-class institution and allowing thousands of Saudi students — men and women — to study abroad. His investment in young people and in dialogue on critical issues facing the Kingdom was an investment in the future and a recognition that Saudi Arabia must undergo a cautious process of measured change.

Predicting how King Salman’s reign will unfold is an impossible task. Leaders tend to grow into their responsibilities and to learn that the perspective from the throne can be quite different from that encountered by even the closest advisors to a king. What is clear is that King Salman moved quickly to establish his line of succession, naming Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister. He took a further step toward a new era in Saudi Arabia by naming one of the Saudi founder’s grandsons, Prince Muhammad bin Naif, as Deputy Crown Prince and Second Deputy Prime Minister, making him the first outside the sons of King Abdulaziz to be named in the line of succession and literally the first in a new generation of Saudi leadership.

King Salman has long been known in Saudi Arabia as the “Prince of Loyalty,” a skilled diplomat both within the ranks of the large Saudi royal family and its internal workings and in Saudi Arabia’s external diplomacy with other Arab states, with the broader Islamic world and with a wide cross-section of global powers. He is said to have close ties to Saudi Arabia’s religious leadership, a reality where a measure of devotion may also allow him a measure of leverage with that leadership. Salman’s loyalty to Saudi Arabia likely means that he will move carefully but determinedly to acknowledge his country’s 21st century realities, to quietly seek advice in and beyond the royal family, to reach out to the next generation of Saudi leadership, to preserve tradition even while adapting it to the future, and to make his country’s voice heard in regional and global circles of power. We wish him well.

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