Saudi Arabia’s king has long been a consensus figure. And the succession of Salman ibn Abdulaziz as monarch of the desert kingdom is unlikely to cause major upsets in the conservative nation, either at home or abroad, according to many of those who study the secretive royal family.
The death of King Abdullah on Thursday brought to power his brother, a former governor of Riyadh who had been crown prince and defense minister since 2012. As ruler, he is unlikely to bring immediate and tumultuous change to a kingdom whose rulers have always emphasized gradual evolution.
“The Saudi government is a big ship and it steers very slowly,” said Jon Alterman, vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Middle East program.
“The king has an entourage. And every king not only has his own entourage but one that in many cases has been with him for decades. There will be a change in personalities, people who have been waiting for a long time to settle scores, to have the opportunity to do things they think are important to do,” Alterman said.
“But the reality is that the differences between the princes diminish as they get closer to being king. King Abdullah had a reputation for being anti-American 20 or 30 years ago. But it ceases to be about you and more about national interests. This idea that the king sets the course is only partly true. It’s a lot about the relationships between the institutions, and the king’s role is a lot more circumscribed than it looks from abroad,” he said.
Crown Prince Salman was next in line among the 45 sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, and had a reputation for being “very energetic, very outgoing and capable” when he was mayor of the capital, said Alterman.
But there are rumors that Salman suffers from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and some expect that the nearly 80-year-old successor’s reign may be a short one.
Abdullah took the unusual step last year of designating a second successor, his 69-year-old half-brother, Muqrin, a former air force pilot and intelligence chief reported to be “very responsible and detail-oriented,” Alterman said. Whether that choice by the late king for a successor-in-waiting will be heeded by the royal house remains to be seen, he added.
Rivalry in the royal house is likely to emerge after Salman’s reign, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
“We can see the immediate succession pathway, but there is competition in the longer term,” he said. “This could be a prolonged era of leadership change,” he added.
Shaikh suggested, however, that the Saudis would be eager to preserve an appearance of unity and that any struggles would play out in private.