Arabia After King Abdullah

If Crown Prince Salman replaces King Abdullah, political conditions are likely to deteriorate for the Saudi people, the region and for the international community.


King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, has been inundated with inquiries from Western media and politicians since news broke of King Abdullah’s recent hospitalization. They are wondering about the Saudi royal succession and whether King Abdullah’s “reform” initiatives will continue when he no longer rules.

Traditionally, Saudi kings are designated years or decades before inheriting the throne. Crown princes become automatically kings when reigning kings die after long and, in some cases, incapacitating ailments. Given this family tradition, it’s assured that Crown Prince Salman (known for his pro-Salafi Islam and anti-reform proclivities) will inherit the Saudi throne unless the 35 princes’ “Allegiance Commission” which King Abdullah established in 2006 reasserts its powers to recommend future Saudi kings and crown princes.

This is unlikely to happen without a potential palace revolt which is said to be the primary reason that convinced King Abdullah to bypass his brainchild Commission when he unilaterally appointed his ultra-conservative half-brother Naif (a staunch opponent of any political reform) Crown Prince in 2011 without consulting the Commission. When Naif mysteriously died in Switzerland, the King again disregarded his Commission and appointed Naif’s full brother Salman as Crown Prince.

Ironically, the King was profusely praised for creating the Commission by the international community and by progressive members of the royal family like Prince Talal, who resigned from the Commission to protest King Abdullah’s decision to circumvent it. Abdullah’s move dashed the hopes of Saudi reformers for any reform that might pave the way to popular political participation.

However, the traditional process of royal succession could be transformed if reform-minded royals, especially the younger generation, or if King Abdullah’s powerful sons, specifically, Prince Mitib, the Minister of the ruthless National Guard, Prince Mishal, the Governor of Mecca and Prince Abdul Aziz, the deputy to the ailing Foreign Minister Saud Alfaisal, demand a greater role in deciding who should be the next king and what reform strategies must be initiated and implemented after their father no longer rules. Like their father, none of King Abdullah’s sons trusts Crown Prince Salman and his Sudairi wing of the family (the Sudairi 7) due to historical animosities, namely the marginalization of their father for decades prior to his ascendance to the throne in 2005.

In addition to the disregarded Allegiance Commission, King Abdullah has introduced two other mostly token reform initiatives: municipal elections in 2005 in which women and youth were not allowed to run for office or vote for candidates, and the 2013 appointment of 30 carefully selected pro-government women to the Majlis Al-Shura, a powerless consultative chamber which consists of 150 members hand-picked by the King. Both initiatives proved to be misleading appeasements for domestic and external consumption because neither has produced any change in the political and social status quo. All powers and decision-making processes remain in the hands of the political and religious ruling oligarchs.

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Despite the Saudi people’s initial hopes for political reforms when King Abdullah ascended to the throne in 2005 and despite western commendation for the King’s announcements of religious and political reforms, King Abdullah’s actions only served to strengthen the grip that the royal family and religious establishment hold on the country. More Saudi human rights activists and free speech advocates are being arrested and imprisoned and more punishing laws (royal decrees) have been issued under King Abdullah’s reign than under any of his predecessors.

He criminalized defaming the reputation of the state, insulting a member of the royal family or religious clerics. King Abdullah has increased the number of the dreaded Interior Ministry’s secret police by 60,000, ostensibly to ensure public safety, but in reality, as many Saudis know, to crack down on pro-democracy movements and human rights activists. King Abdullah’s appointments of Princes Naif and Salman (both of whom adamantly oppose even his cosmetic initiatives) to inherit the throne are blatant contradiction to the popular perception that he is a reformer.

If, as expected, Crown Prince Salman becomes the next King, political conditions are likely to deteriorate for the Saudi people, the region and for the international community. Prince Salman’s support for the intolerant Saudi religious establishment, his insistence that the lethal Saudi dogma, Wahhabism, is a “pure call” “derived from Allah’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet,” his belief that the Saudi ruling family owns the country by birthright and his well-known anti-political reform stance, will result in more political oppression than under any previous King.

However, the raging turmoil in the Arab world combined with increased domestic repression are likely to create a tinder box awaiting a spark of an event to set off a conflagration that even iron-fisted Salman cannot prevent.

Ali Alyami, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountabilityRead other articles by Ali.

  • Very depressing to see the status in the middle east. Its moving no where. Bloodshed is no option and suppression is not an option either.