In less than six months since the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdallah, the new king has made changes in the kingdom’s leadership. The changes have introduced considerable uncertainty in an absolute monarchy that has long prized continuity, experience and risk aversion. The success or failure of the new policies would have profound effect not just on the Middle East but on the international scene.
King Salman bin Abdul Aziz has removed Abdallah’s choice for crown prince in favor of a younger prince, replaced the world’s longest serving foreign minister, streamlined decision making, and created two powerful committees to oversee defense and economic issues. He also promoted his 29-year-old son to be minister of defense and gave Prince Muhammad bin Salman command of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The changes mark a historic shift in power from the generation of princes who took the kingdom from a desolate, poor and isolated outback in the Arabian Peninsula, transforming it into a global energy giant and most powerful state in the Arab world, to a new royal generation that has grown up with incredible wealth.
Abdallah ruled the kingdom for 20 years, first as crown prince after his brother Fahd had a debilitating stroke in 1995 and then as king when Fahd passed away. He was a cautious reformer by Saudi standards who pursued a risk-averse foreign policy. When Iran sponsored a terrorist attack on US Air Force barracks in Khobar in 1996, for example, Abdallah was careful not to let the attack escalate into a war with Iran. He managed the difficult days after the 9/11 attacks , when the US-Saudi relationship was at risk of unraveling after reports that 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis – then quietly opposed President George Bush’s war in Iraq, which Abdallah worried would only strengthen Iran’s influence in Iraq. Abdallah outlived two crown princes, Sultaan and Nayef, and had appointed his half-brother Prince Muqrin to be third in line behind Salman.
Salman initially put Muqrin in the crown prince’s position when Abdallah died, but then for reasons never explained removed him and put Muhammad bin Nayef in the job. MBN would become the first of his generation to succeed to the throne. At 55, he is known for resisting Al Qaeda’s attempt to overthrow the House of Saud from 2003 to 2006. He is also the father of two daughters, without a son as a potential heir.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship had its finest hour under Bush. It’s no surprise that the Saudis want to remember the good old days. Given the acute crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations, Riyadh urgently needs a capable ambassador in Washington, but not one so tainted with the Khashoggi murder and coverup.