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Saudi Arabia has a new king with the same old policies

Saudi Arabia has a new king with the same old policies
Published 23 Jan 2015   Follow @RodgerShanahan

New Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. (Wikipedia.)

With the death of King Abdullah, the Saudi succession machinery has immediately swung into action. The Saudi monarchy prizes stability, and in order to forestall any damaging intrigue regarding succession, particularly in light of heir Prince Salman's reported poor health, Prince Muqrin was announced as the deputy crown prince in March last year.  So now King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin ascend to their respective positions, and the opaque manoeuvrings for access to power for the next generation of Saudi Arabia's extended ruling family begins in earnest.

The new king faces significant security challenges: ISIS on its borders in Iraq, the loosening of its grip in Yemen, plunging oil prices and a challenge for regional influence from Iran. But none of these are existential threats, and the regional situation faced by King Abdullah when he succeeded was also complex. I was in Riyadh when King Fahd died in 2005 and Saudi Arabia was in the grip of an internal security threat more serious than anything it faces now. Back then, there was a near full-scale conflict in Iraq between the US-led occupation forces and both Sunni and Shi'a insurgents, Iran had announced the resumption of uranium conversion, and shortly afterward it elected hardliner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president.

This shouldn't be forgotten when pundits speak of the regional security challenges facing Saudi Arabia today.  The region faced near continuous crises of one form or another for nearly all of Abdullah's rule, and the decision makers in Riyadh are hardly unschooled in addressing them.  The change at the top of the House of Saud is unlikely to presage any significant change in Saudi domestic or foreign policy. 

What it will do is force Saudi Arabia and others to look more closely at the next generation, the grandchildren of Abdulaziz. It is likely that one of these (and perhaps even King Muqrin, if he accedes to the throne) will face the types of challenges — domestic instability caused by the House of Saud's inability to meet the terms of the political contract it has with its religious leaders and the social contract it has with its population; the possibility of an economically and politically dominant Iran operating in a post-sanctions environment; as well as a raft of other as yet unforeseen issues — that are likely to truly threaten the stability of the Kingdom. 

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