Saudi Arabia’s Next King, Salman, a Wild Card for the Middle East

AP Photo/Saudi Press Agency
AP Photo/Saudi Press Agency
Washington, D.C.

Salman bin Abdulaziz (estimated age of 79), became King of Saudi Arabia on Friday. He succeeds his half-brother, King Abdullah, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 91.

As the new King, the former Crown Prince was chosen by Abdullah out of a potential pool of an estimated 4,000 Saudi Princes who were eligible to replaced the deceased King.

Many reports have indicated that the King suffers from a plethora of health issues. Medical experts and local news outlets revealed that he has suffered at least one stroke, which has left him with little ability to move his left arm. Other, more troubling reports indicate that King Salman may be suffering from Alzheimers. Simon Henderson of the respected Washington Institute has said, “Salman’s brain is evidently ravaged by dementia.” He adds, “Visitors report that after a few minutes of conversation, he becomes incoherent.” Jordan-based Al Bawaba reported as far back as 2012 that Salman “has Alzheimers.”

If Salman’s health issues are as severe as some reports have indicated, the importance cannot be understated of his appointment of Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz, 69, as Crown Prince (heir to the throne).

Crown Prince Muqrin was director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services from 2005 to 2012. Unlike King Salman, Prince Muqrin is a product of a Western education, having completed undergraduate studies at the UK’s Royal Air Force College in Cranwell, and having earned a degree equivalent to a Masters in the United States. He is said to be more “liberal-minded” than King Salman. As the son of a Yemeni mother, questions remain whether Muqrin would have the popular support within the House of Saud to be elevated to King.

King Salman’s thirteen children from his three wives work in a variety of roles throughout the Saudi government. His sons include Prince Mohammed, who takes Salman’s previous post as defense minister, and Prince Faisal, the governor of the Islamic holy city of Medina. He has long been described as a “mediator” and “peacemaker” in dealing with internal family issues.

Another one of his sons, Prince Turki, is listed as the chairman of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), which controls multiple news outlets, including Asharq al Awsat, Arab News, Al Majalla, and Al Eqtisadiah.

King Salman is known to have heavy influence over the Saudi-produced papers. He has frequently been described by its editors as the “owner” of the publications, according to a diplomatic cable leaked to Wikileaks. Two of the better known english-language papers — Arab News and the London-based Asharq al Awsat, have been described as having “conservative” and “moderate” views compared to the rest of Saudi Arabia’s publications.

Salman’s longest-held position was as Governor of Riyadh province, a role he served in for 48 years (1963-2011). He is credited with helping to transform the Saudi capital city into a metropolis filled with skyscrapers and modern architecture. Census data indicates that Riyadh’s population has soared from 150,000 in 1960 to an estimated 6 million at present day.

In his most recent position as Defense Minister, Salman maintained a prominent role in supporting the U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State.

Salman was promoted by royal decree to Crown Prince in 2012. U.S. President Barack Obama said of Salman’s appoint at the time: He is “a man of deep faith who is committed to improving the lives of the people of Saudi Arabia and to the security of the region.” He added, The United States looks forward to continuing our strong relationship with Crown Prince Salman in his new capacity as we deepen the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

Some experts have evaluated that Salman will likely fill a “stabilizing” role. Many conclude that liberal reforms are far from likely during Salman’s tenure.

As King, Salman faces a plethora of foreign policy issues, including the Ayatollah’s regime in Iran and its expanding Shiite influences; the rise of ISIS; and severe sectarian clashes and the continuing collapse of governments throughout the Arab world.