| Shabtai Gold |
Istanbul/Cairo (dpa) – King Salman prepares to sit on the throne of Saudi Arabia with a host of regional conflicts on his plate and at a time when oil prices are at their lowest in years.
King Abdullah, who died overnight, had set up a royal commission to ensure a smooth transition of the oil-rich monarchy, which appears to have prevented infighting.
Prince Moqren has been named heir to the throne of the staunch Western ally and will likely be a key player, given the ill health of the new king, who has reportedly suffered a stroke.
The royal court also quickly appointed a deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, who is the first of the grandsons of Saudi Arabia’s founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud to be fixed as the king-in-waiting.
“This is a smooth succession. It’s a sign that the political system in Saudi Arabia works,” says Guido Steinberg, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
The Islamic kingdom is exceedingly dependent on oil for its revenue and has used its wealth to pacify some segments of its population, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.
“When the Arab youth revolutions began in 2011, the Saudi Arabian regime reacted quickly to ensure that they did not spread to the kingdom. Its tool of counter-revolution? Domestic welfare spending in the tens of billions,” writes Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan.
Despite budgetary concerns, experts say Saudi Arabia will likely continue to keep production steady, even as it means prices will stay low and it will run a deficit.
“In the short term, there will be an increase in the volatility in the oil market,” said Neil Beveridge, an expert at the investment bank Sanford C. Bernstein, but added that he expects no change in policy.
Using a carrot-and-stick approach, authorities in the Sunni monarchy have also harshly crushed protests by the Shiite minority in the kingdom and worked to quash all dissent.
The country is currently surrounded by turmoil, including the capture by the Islamic State of significant territory in neighbouring Iraq coupled with the fallout from the Arab Spring and civil wars across the region.
“With the Arab world facing its worst crisis in decades the royals will want to present an image of stability and strength. This is especially true with the collapse of the pro-Saudi government in Yemen, which will be Salman’s first crisis,” according to Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.
Saudi Arabia has been a major financier of impoverished and volatile Yemen, which shares a 1,800-kilometre border with the monarchy.
Shiite Houthi rebels, seen as an ally of Sunni Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran, have largely taken control over the capital Sana’a. Also, the Yemeni government has resigned, leaving a political vacuum in a country plagued by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s most powerful faction.
Despite its own concerns about domestic terrorism, following a wave of attacks a decade ago, Saudi Arabia has backed extremist fighters in Syria, where it is keen to oust President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Shiite Iran.
But the religious divide within Islam is far from Saudi Arabia’s only motivation.
The country, which has no legal political parties, fears unrest from within, and under King Abdullah it backed the former army general Abdul Fatah al-Sissi in Egypt, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, to act as a pillar of stability.
Political Islam, as espoused by the brotherhood movement, was an ideology that could gain a following in the kingdom and threaten the royal family’s rule.
The movement, seen by the royals as a dangerous cult, has been banned in Saudi Arabia and is treated as a terrorist organisation.
“The Saudi leadership now looks at the brotherhood rather as the American right-wing looked at communism in the McCarthy period,” Cole, the history professor, said last year.