5:50 pm - Tuesday November 3, 2015

Who is Saudi’s new king?

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The new king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, served as the Governor of capital Riyadh for nearly 50 years. He is known to be a mediator of disputes within the sprawling royal family.

Salman, 79, had increasingly taken on the duties of the king over the past year as his ailing predecessor and half-brother, Abdullah, became more incapacitated. King Abdullah died before dawn on Friday aged 90.

Salman had served as defence minister since 2011 and was head of the military as Saudi Arabia joined the United States and other Arab countries in carrying out airstrikes in Syria in 2014 against the Islamic State.

Salman’s ascension hands the throne to yet another aging son of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who is thought to have had more than 50 sons from multiple wives.

Salman’s health has been a question of concern. He suffered at least one stroke that has left him with limited mobility in his left arm.

The Saudi throne has for decades passed between Al Saud’s sons. Prince Muqrin, the youngest of the sons at 69, was named crown-prince in the royal court statement that announced Salman as king.

Each succession has brought the kingdom closer to a time when the next-generation Al Saud’s grandsons will have to take over. Although the family has successfully managed to close ranks throughout the years, a generational change would raise the specter of a power struggle by placing the throne in the hands of one branch at the expense of the others.

King Abdullah had carried out a slow but determined series of reforms aimed at modernising the country, including increasing education and nudging open the margins of women’s rights. Salman appears to back those reforms, but he has also voiced concerns about moving too fast.

In a 2007 meeting, he told an outgoing U.S. ambassador that the existence of “social and cultural factors” — even more than religious — mean change must be introduced slowly and with sensitivity, noting the power of the multiple tribes in the kingdom, according to an embassy memo of the meeting leaked by the Wikileaks whistleblower site.

He spoke on the same theme in a 2010 interview with Karen Elliot House, author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines. He told her that while Americans are unified by democracy, Saudi Arabia is essentially unified by his family, the Al Sauds. According to House, Salman told her: “We can’t have democracy in Saudi Arabia because if we did, every tribe would be a party and then we would be like Iraq and would have chaos.”

That was House’s second meeting with Salman. Her first was in the 1980s when she said he “seemed to be rather kind of stiff and regal and he pontificated more than he responded.” But in 2010, “he was a different guy, kind of softer and less formal and much less self-important.”

Salman was one of the so-called “Sudeiri Seven” — the seven sons born to one of Abdul-Aziz’s most favored wives, Hussa bint Ahmad Sudeiri. The seven full-brothers were seen as a centre of power within the family. Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahd, was among the seven, as were Abdullah’s first two crown-princes, Sultan and Nayef, who died in 2011 and 2012 respectively before ever reaching the throne.

Salman appears to have played a frequent role in ensuring the Al Saud family’s unity. The 2007 U.S. Embassy memo said he “is often the referee in family disputes”. It pointed to an incident after King Abdullah formalised the Allegiance Council, a body of top royals that is tasked with voting on succession issues based on merit and not just age. Salman’s eldest living brother, Abdul-Rahman, was outspoken in his criticism of the arrangement, but Salman bluntly told his brother to “shut up and get back to work”, according to the memo.

Salman is also known to have extensive contacts among the country’s tribes and his influence is further extended through a network of family businesses, including a stake in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

At a relatively young age, Salman became the governor of Riyadh in 1963 and over the next 48 years he oversaw its transformation from an isolated desert town into a crowded city of skyscrapers, universities and Western fast-food chains. He also saw it struggle to keep up with demand for affordable housing and sufficient public transportation for its 4 million residents. The post made him well known internationally, as he played host for VIPs and international envoys and helped secure foreign investment.

In discussions with U.S. diplomats in 2007 revealed in several memos, Salman spoke out against militancy, but added that Jewish and Christian extremism had fed Islamic extremism, even warning that the United States would one day see a threat from Jewish and Christian radicals. He told the Americans that the key to bringing stability to the Middle East was to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding that Israel was “a burden on the U.S.”.

Salman’s sons include Prince Abdulaziz, the deputy oil minister; Prince Faisal, the governor of Medina; and Prince Sultan, the first Arab astronaut and current head of the tourism authority.

Another son with influence is believed to be Prince Mohammed, the eldest son from Salman’s third wife. In his 30s, Mohammed is the head of his father’s royal court.

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