Saudi Arabia: Its Rulers and its Future in Light of the Arab Awakening

Saudi Arabia’s succession process is now clear. Power will remain with the inner circle of princes that have run the Kingdom for a half century; generational change has been postponed. The death of Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Prince Sultan after a long illness on October 22 moved the Interior Minister Prince Nayef into the second slot as heir apparent. This month Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud took over as defense minister and second deputy prime minister. Salman has thus taken over the biggest ministry and the position where future crown princes wait for their day to come.

The royal family has essentially kept all the power in the hands of the sons of the current kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz, for the foreseeable future;  King Abdallah, Sultan, Nayef and Salman are all the first generation of Abdul Aziz’s offspring. Power has been kept in this generation now for over a half century. And it probably will stay that way since there are still more sons of Abdul Aziz waiting in line, most notably the intelligence czar, Prince Muqrin, who is only 66. In the midst of the Arab Spring, the House of Saud is sticking with its veteran line up.

Salman was born in 1936 and has been governor of Riyadh province, home of the capital, since 1962. He took over in Riyadh the same year as Sultan became minister of defense. Salman now presides over a huge budget including a new $60 billion arms deal with the United States, a deal which is critical to jobs across America.

When Salman became governor of Riyadh in 1962, the desert capital had only 150,000 inhabitants. In 1902, Abdul Aziz captured Riyadh and began the creation of the current Saudi state. It had less than 10,000 inhabitants a century ago in 1911.

Today, Riyadh is a city of some seven million people, a bustling metropolis in the heart of the Nejdi desert. About sixty five percent are Saudis, the rest foreign workers primarily from South Asia and Yemen. It is one of the fastest growing cities of the Arab world, which is particularly striking given the very arid condition of the Nejd. Without desalinization plants, cheap energy, and air conditioning, it could not exist.

Salman presided as an effective administrator and planner over this enormous change. He has a reputation for being more open to new ideas and innovation than his brother Nayef, who is widely seen as an ultraconservative. Salman owns the kingdom’s top newspaper. His family is innovative as well. Salman’s son, Sultan, became Islam’s first astronaut in an American space expedition. Salman’s elevation to third in line thus helps to keep some balance between reform—Saudi style—and counter revolution in the top family troika. Nonetheless, Nayef’s era is expected to be tough on innovation and change.

The king’s health is poor. Nayef and Salman have health issues as well. But the family prefers continuity. It picked Salman over Sultan’s son, Khaled, the hero of the first Gulf War in 1991. He has moved up a notch to deputy but his generation must wait a bit longer to get to the top. Salman’s Riyadh job went to yet another brother, Prince Sattam, who had been his deputy.

As defense minister, Salman will have to deal with issues he has not been involved with in the past. By far, the most vexing issue for Salman in his new hat will be Yemen. The country hovers on the edge of full scale civil war. Unrest in Yemen can spread to Saudi Arabia’s southwestern provinces. The Saudi military has been involved for the last few years in conflict with Yemen’s rebellious Houthi Shia tribes, a rebellion that has only gotten stronger with the Arab spring.  

Salman has been a friend of the American embassy in Riyadh for decades, helping to ensure its security. Now he will have a much broader dialogue with Washington on issues much more complex and contentious. We cooperate on containing Iran and fighting al Qaeda in Yemen but disagree sharply about Bahrain and Palestine. As the Arab Awakening creates new challenges to the U.S.-Saudi partnership, the new team in Riyadh will have to maneuver the pitfalls and opportunities with skill to keep America’s oldest alliance in the Middle East alive.