Following to the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Sa‘ud, announced on the early morning of January 23rd on Saudi state television, and the crowing of his half-brother Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Sa‘ud, the world has moved to understand nuances in the transition from the old to the new King.
Institutionally speaking, the transition has been smooth, and well-orchestrated. King Abdullah’s death was somehow expected and indeed the 90-years old king - hospitalized since December 31 for a bad pneumonia - had already appointed Salman as Crown Prince and he had already taken over for his brother in some official duties. Politically speaking, the common wisdom among analysts and commentators alike is that the new King will largely follow in his predecessor's footsteps, as he pledged continuity in all respects upon his coronation on Friday.
No doubt the bulk of Saudi foreign and domestic policies, as well as their key drivers and directories, will remain largely unchanged. However, the King’s first moves in terms of long-term succession arrangements, may point to some subtle yet meaningful signs of discontinuity. For one thing, the appointment of Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, the Interior Minister, as Deputy Crown Prince, and of the King’s son, Prince Muhammed bin Salman as Defence Minister and Head of the Royal Court, tips the balance of power within the palace decisively in favour of the Al Sudairis, a powerful family to which King Salman and the new appointees belong, from the central part of Saudi Arabia, Nejd, the cradle of Wahhabist thought and practice.
Secondly, and arguably most importantly, the full dismissal of the powerful Minister Khaled Al Tuwaijri, the closest advisor to former King Abdullah, suggested that these arrangements might go beyond the classic power politics and have actual political repercussions. Often referred to as "the uncrowned King" by Saudi observers, Al Tuwaijri was the Head of the Royal Court and Commander of the Royal Guard. But, most of all, he is considered the man behind many of King Abdullah's initiatives, in the domestic as well as the regional context.
Noticeably, Al Tuwaijri is known as quite a liberal, up to the point that some of the more conservative factions inside the kingdom have repeatedly described him as a primary personality of a “westernisation project” and a “patron of a secularists” in Saudi Arabia. As a matter of fact, Al Tuwaijri was an active supporter of Abdullah's efforts to nudge powerful conservative clerics to accept cautious changes aimed at reconciling Islamic tradition with the needs of modernity. He encouraged and stimulated the former King when he undertook limited liberalization of the economy to stimulate private sector growth, introduced elections for municipal councils – that, however, hold little real power - and attempted to improve the position of women, trying to offer them better education and employment prospects and promosing they will be allowed to take part in municipal elections in 2015. However, with Al Tuwaijri gone, it is uncertain that this already cautious path towards reforms will continue, given that the Al Sudairis are declaredly inspired by a way more conservative doctrine.
At a regional level, Al-Tuwaijri was a key player in several matters including supporting the Islamist rebels against Bashar al Assad in Syria, sending troops in 2001 to crush demonstrations in Bahrain, and, most importantly, backing up the 2013 military coup in Egypt. Indeed, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi appears to be himself strongly linked to Al-Tuwaijri. The Saudi Minister was even in the midst of mediating to reconcile the General and his cabinet with the Qatari leadership. The ultimate agenda appeared to be encouraging Qatar to further weaken its patronage for the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed with bitter enmity both from Riyadh and from the current government in Cairo. Not much is expected to change in the management of the Egyptian dossier under King Salman, however, it may be possible that President Al-Sisi would receive fewer benefits from Riyadh that it used to. Furthermore it is conceivable that under the new leadership, the Kingdom will further harden its stances in countering extremist forces rising in the region including Daesh and Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Minister of Interior since 2012, responsible for the Syrian dossier since February 2014, and recently appointed Deputy Crown Prince, has traditionally advocated for an iron fist approach to counterterrorism. The first of a younger generation to be officially put forward as a legitimate aspirant to the throne, during his time as Minister Mohammed bin Nayef been very wary about the risk of supporting radical groups abroad and, in particular, about the risk that Saudi jihadis would personally get involved. He tightened the reins on fundraising, thus meeting the favour of several Western constituencies, particularly in Washington. Having consolidated his position within the court, Mohammad bin Nayef could grab the opportunity to influence Saudi foreign policy according to his forceful stances, especially in dealing with the collapse of Yemen, now effectively contested between the Houthi rebels, who took over the capital coming from north, the southern Sunni tribes, close to the Saudis, and AQAP.
Indeed it would be interesting to observe how the new leadership will navigate the challenges that lie ahead in the broader region. On the other hand the real conundrum, and the issues that could worry the new Saudi leadership the most, lie in the social realm. As a matter of fact, Riyadh has always seen all other issues, be they regional or domestic, through the prism of regime stability. This stability, based upon a widely accepted form of “contract” between the leadership and the people, has been threatened for the first time in decades in 2011, when protests touched the Eastern provinces of the Kingdom. Since those episodes, many started to wonder whether that very social contract had been put into question. The answer to that question is yet unclear. What is clear is that King Abdullah had managed to really win over an overwhelming part of its people and that this element cannot be overlooked when analysing the resilience of the regime following to 2011. Therefore, while economic, political and security dilemmas will predictably demand the attention of the new leadership, its most crucial moves would be those aimed at renewing the Saudi social contract and reinforcing the bond with its people.