January 23, 2015

Saudi Arabia’s new king will have his hands full dealing with multiple challenges, both at home and abroad, says Atlantic Council analyst Bilal Y. Saab.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who ascended to the throne following the death of his half-brother Abdullah on Friday, was quick to indicate his intention to continue his predecessor’s policies.

“Saudi Arabia has profound and generational problems that go beyond Abdullah, his successor, or any leader for that matter who will preside over the kingdom,” Saab, a resident senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, said in an interview.

Salman and his brother, Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, “will have to create and manage a team of younger and more effective professionals who are much more in tune with the latest regional and global trends and know a thing or two about the demands of the 21st century,” he added.

Salman is well known in Washington, especially for his role leading the kingdom’s fight against al Qaeda after the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001.

“Relations between [the US and Saudi Arabia] will not experience increasing uncertainty because they know who they are dealing with,” said Saab.

Saab spoke in an interview with New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: What sort of relationship does Salman have with Washington?

Saab: Salman is a well-known figure in Washington. Relations between the two sides will not experience increasing uncertainty because they know who they are dealing with. There shouldn’t be concerns in Washington about the new king.

It has been reported that Salman has a pretty good track record developing and modernizing Riyadh. He has fought corruption.

Q: What is Abdullah’s legacy?

Saab: He will be remembered for his relatively reformist mindset and quite bold foreign policy initiatives, but his passing has little to no impact on the kingdom’s future and the set of increasingly difficult challenges it will have to face at home and abroad.

Leadership matters, especially in the Middle Eastern context where institutions are weak and often non-existent, but Saudi Arabia has profound and generational problems that go beyond Abdullah, his successor, or any leader for that matter who will preside over the kingdom no matter how charismatic or talented.

Q: What are some of these challenges?

Saab: These challenges include diversifying the economy; boosting employment; practicing good governance; empowering women much more than they have already done; responding to the youth’s concerns; combating the Islamic State; checking Iran’s advances; improving relations with Washington, which are not optimal at this point; stabilizing Yemen; and leading the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is one thing for the other Gulf countries not to upset Saudi Arabia, but it is another thing altogether to actually follow it.

This set of challenges is so enormous that it will require the attention of much more than a single individual. King Salman, with the help of his youngest brother Crown Prince Muqrin, will have to create and manage a team of younger and more effective professionals who are much more in tune with the latest regional and global trends and know a thing or two about the demands of the 21st century. That ultimately is his biggest responsibility. Not just governing, but creating and managing this team.

Q: There are reports that Salman isn’t in the best of health. Some have even suggested that he suffers from dementia.

Saab: Those accusations are all over the place. Quite frankly if you’re not an insider in the kingdom who is visiting often, who knows a lot about the family, who talks to the family, I don’t know how you can come up with accusations that the man has dementia. This is completely unproven.

He does have health issues, whether it’s his back or other concerns that are well known by everyone inside the kingdom.

Q: What do we know about Crown Prince Muqrin?

Saab: Muqrin is in relatively good shape. He is not very young, but definitely younger than Salman.

He is very well known in Washington and has worked closely with his American counterparts on the counterterrorism front, particularly in 2003 and 2004 during the massive insurrection of al Qaeda in the kingdom when they were launching attacks in major cities. Muqrin was the man coordinating with Washington and the other Western powers who provided assistance. There was a consensus that he did a pretty good job.

This is a man who knows a lot of secrets. You could describe him as the new intelligence czar of the kingdom, after Bandar bin Sultan [the former Saudi ambassador to the US]. He has formed a lot of really important relationships with regional countries and Western powers.

I think Washington will be comfortable working with him as well and Salman setting the stage for him to be the next king.

Q: Do you expect a shift in the Saudi strategy of to keep pumping oil even while prices plummet?

Saab: King Salman’s first tweet said he will follow in the path of King Abdullah. That to me covers all major issues, including oil strategy.

Oil strategy is made in consensus and includes the input of not just business leaders in the kingdom who have connections with the royal family, but also international consultants who are paid to think what is best for the kingdom, and people who work at Aramco, the Saudi national oil company. This is a very complex decision. The king may be the ultimate decider, but I believe the decision is made in consensus.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.

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