(Reuters) – In making a blaze of largesse and the dismissal of relatively liberal clerics two of his first acts as monarch, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has signaled his approach to big future challenges may differ from that of his liberalizing late brother.
On the face of it, those moves suggest a partiality for religious conservatism and the buying of political support – both traits that seem to contradict the modernizing reforms the kingdom says it wants.
While the truth is likely to be more complex than that, the moves hint at how Salman might tackle Saudi Arabia’s looming demographic challenge, which threatens to undermine the ruling family’s legitimacy at a moment of unprecedented regional chaos.
“Traditionalists and modernists grew apart during King Abdullah’s time. But Salman had excellent relations with both sides and each thinks the new king is behind him,” said Khalil al-Khalil, an academic and writer at Imam Saud University, the country’s most influential seminary.
“I expect we’ll see conservatives start to test the boundaries and see what they can get away with under the new regime,” said a diplomat in the Gulf.
However, it is far from clear if Salman really will slow, or even reverse, Abdullah’s liberalizing reforms, which are popular with many young Saudis.
Saudi Arabia’s unspoken social contract – that its people owe the king obedience in return for public services, comfortable living standards and a government that rules in accordance with Islamic tenets – is at risk.
Fast population growth means spending on citizens must be constrained, while increasing access to the outside world means liberals and conservatives alike now challenge the idea of dynastic rule.