King Salman, at 79 years old, was widely believed to be in poorer health when he ascended the throne than any of his predecessors. He had been the Saudi minister of defence for six months and Crown Prince for two-and-a-half years – the shortest period amongst his predecessors. King Abdullah and Prince Salman did not have a close relationship. He was overshadowed by his three high profile elder brothers – King Fahd, Crown Prince Sultan, the longtime stalwart and defence minister, and the longtime equally stalwart Crown Prince Nayef, who was interior minister for most of his working life. The latter two had sons who held high profile jobs and were regarded as influential in their own right. Salman was the governor of the strategically key Riyadh Province for 53 years. Though he has been a part of the core decision-making coterie for the past few decades, from the background perspective, he was less ‘prepared’ to be King than all his predecessors barring King Khalid. No King has ascended the throne in Saudi Arabia in circumstances more challenging for the country than Salman. (See ‘Saudi Arabia and Evolving Regional Strategic Dynamics’, IPCS Commentary #4843, 2 March 2015). For all these reasons, there was a consensus that he would do no more than maintain continuity and stability; rocking the boat would have been completely out of character and totally unexpected.
However, Salman’s actions and decisions as King have been swift and breathtakingly audacious. It can be safely asserted that nobody in Saudi Arabia, let alone abroad, could visualise when Salman took over that in just over three months, the composition of the Saudi government could be so utterly and dramatically different from the previous one; and that Saudi Arabia would be involved in the biggest war in its history.
It is not only the decisions themselves but the manner and timing of their being taken and announced that is unprecedented. On the morning of 23 January, the Saudis woke up to discover that they had a new King – Salman; a new Crown Prince – Muqrin was promoted; a new Deputy Crown Prince –Nayef, settling a longtime speculation about when the transition to the next generation will be and who it will be; and, the most surprising, a new Defence Minister, Mohamed bin Salman, under 30 years old, whose major qualification for the job is that he is his father’s favourite son. He was also made Head of the Royal Court and the chairman of one of two new committees that would define and implement policies.
This combination made him the second-most powerful person after the King. All this happened in the first few hours of Salman becoming the king – former king Abdullah hadn’t even been buried yet. Never before in Saudi history had such sensitive and important appointments been made so extraordinarily swiftly. No King before Salman had so blatantly favoured his own progeny.
On 25 March, Saudi Arabia launched Operation Desert Storm, a series of airstrikes across Yemen – Saudi Arabia’s first major war at its own initiative since its invasion of Yemen in 1934. Riyadh has been the world’s largest arms importer in the past decade; no comparable country has such huge amounts of state-of-the-art military hardware as Saudi Arabia but its decent-sized armed forces are not battle-tested in a real conflict. Riyadh has thus entered completely uncharted waters.
The war has been personally monitored by the Saudi defence minister. Despite claims of success in daily briefings, the reality is that the war is far from achieving its objectives. Yet, on the morning of 29 April, Saudis awoke to discover that they had a new Crown Prince and a new Deputy Crown Prince. Crown Prince Muqrin had been removed; the first time such a thing has happened in Saudi history; the defence minister was promoted and made the new Deputy Crown Prince; Prince Saud Al Faisal, the iconic foreign minister for 50 years, the world’s longest serving foreign minister, was replaced and the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, Adel Al Jubeir, replaced him. This is the second time in the Kingdom’s history that a non-royal will hold this post. This will inevitably increase the say the young defence minister will have vis-à-vis foreign policy. The first non-royal Foreign Minister was Ibrahim bin Abdullah Al Suwaiyel (1960-62); but those were relatively calm and staid times for Saudi Arabia and the region.
As the governor of Riyadh, he was also responsible for maintaining discipline amongst the Princes – nobody knows the ins and outs of the extended royal family better than him. He was considered more genial and less assertive in family interactions than his elder and more powerful siblings, both Sudairies and non-Sudairies. Therefore, he may be able to override dissensions in the family.
However, the implications of Salman’s decisions are a high risk gamble for him personally, for the stability of the country and even the future of the royal family. If he can pull it off, he would certainly be regarded as the most visionary Saudi monarch after the kingdom’s founder. But, if he fails, there will be little consolation for the country that he was the boldest amongst Saudi monarchs!