Barely 24 hours into his reign, every aspect of King Salman’s life was under scrutiny Friday as foreign policy analysts attempted to divine how he’ll lead Saudi Arabia through domestic pressures, messy regional conflicts and a showdown over plummeting crude oil prices.
Salman took the throne late Thursday upon the death of his half brother, King Abdullah, and within hours reports were flying about the 79-year-old monarch’s health (claims of dementia), his family (one son is the first Muslim astronaut; another is a fighter pilot who’s flown sorties against jihadists in Syria) and his trajectory (a half-century as governor of Riyadh).
Perhaps to counter the image of yet another septuagenarian shuffling to power in a nation where roughly half the population is under 25, one of Salman’s first acts as ruler was to use his official Twitter account to ask God to help him maintain stability and to “protect the kingdom from all evils.”
The royal tweet might be as groundbreaking as it gets for now. Saudi Arabia watchers say that so far the new king appears to favor continuity over shaking things up in a region that’s already aflame.
The status quo is hardly ideal in the view of human rights advocates and Saudi activists who lament the kingdom’s dismal progress on liberalization, but the violent transitions in other Arab states serve as cautionary tales for anyone pushing for change in Saudi Arabia, arguably the most important Arab country.
“Saudi Arabia has been critical to preserving some degree of regional stability in the face of a growing Iranian threat, during the rise of Islamic extremism that followed the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and during the new wave of upheavals that began in the spring of 2011,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Close monitors of the Saudi monarchy note that Salman retained the incumbent oil minister, Ali al Naimi, likely out of fear of how the markets would react to any perceived instability in the succession. Salman’s half brother Prince Muqrin was chosen as crown prince, and Salman’s son Mohammed was named defense minister. Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was made deputy crown prince, according to Saudi state media.
And Salman himself doesn’t have a sharp learning curve. As the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel noted in a commentary Friday, Salman was defense minister, has presided over Cabinet meetings for months and has handled nearly all state travel obligations since he was named heir three years ago.
“Salman is likely to provide continuity,” wrote Riedel, who directs the Brookings Intelligence Project. “The House of Saud values family collegiality and harmony highly.”
“With the Arab world facing its worst crisis in decades,” Riedel wrote, “the royals will want to present an image of stability and strength.”
U.S. officials have refrained from making predictions about Salman’s administration, saying only broadly that they expect bilateral relations to remain strong and cooperative, including on petroleum-related issues.
When asked directly whether the succession would change Saudi Arabia’s energy policy, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the topic was “among the priorities with which we closely coordinate with our partners in Saudi Arabia.”
Analysts don’t expect the king’s death to change the Saudis’ position in the international showdown over oil prices. Saudi Arabia is refusing to cut production despite a worldwide glut that’s driven prices down by more than half since the summer. The Saudis are betting they can outlast U.S. shale oil drillers and expensive production in the Gulf of Mexico and the Russian Arctic.
“The oil policy is not set by one individual,” said Tom Kloza, senior energy analyst for the Oil Price Information Service. “I think for now, we’re likely to see Saudi policy very similar to where it’s been since November, which is ‘We can endure great pain with prices in the $30s and $40s and $50s and we believe that many of the world’s other oil producers cannot.’ ”
John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital in New York, agreed that no policy changes are likely in the short term and that the Saudis will continue their brinkmanship.
“I think everyone in Saudi officialdom was on board with this plan,” he said.
Kilduff said the Saudis had reason to think they were succeeding and could be encouraged to stick with their strategy.
“The Saudis are seeing the fruits of their labor with a falling U.S. rig count,” he said, referring to the decline in the number of oil-drilling platforms in use in the United States.
Masood Ahmed, director of the Middle East department at the International Monetary Fund, also said he didn’t “have any basis” to think Saudi policy was going to change, as the Saudis were able to draw on reserves, at least in the short term, to make up for the country’s budget hit from loss of revenue.
Analyst Kloza suggested the Saudis might eventually decide to dump even more oil on the glutted market.
“If there are parties within the royal family that would like to see hastened this international game of chicken over who blinks first and cuts production, they could actually unleash some more oil,” Kloza said.
On the domestic front, too, no dramatic change was expected, at least not while Riyadh is preoccupied with the problems on its borders, including the collapse of the government in Yemen this week and the war in Iraq between Islamic State jihadists and Iranian-backed Iraqi forces.
Saudi Arabia is a favorite target of human rights groups for its lack of a standardized justice system, its marginalization of Shiite Muslim citizens, its policy of treating women as perpetual minors under the law and its harsh punishments for reform-minded activists, among many other rights transgressions.
What happens next in the latest Saudi human-rights case to make headlines – a blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for criticizing clerics – might be an early barometer for how Salman responds to international pressure. Reports Friday hinted at a measure of clemency in the case of Raif Badawi, with talk among Western diplomats of a reduced prison sentence and a halt to the public floggings, which had been staggered over several Fridays.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. government would respect the Saudis’ mourning period before resuming regular diplomatic talks on contentious issues such as human rights, freedom of speech and the status of women.
Psaki said she wouldn’t analyze the king’s personal views but that there was no expectation that the succession would alter U.S.-Saudi relations, especially on high-value topics such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the joint fight against the Islamic State extremist group.
“We have a long history of cooperation,” Psaki said. “We don’t have any indication that cooperation will change.”