New challenges for Saudi's King Salman
Worsening situation in Yemen and Iranís influence in Iraq a big concern for Riyadh
A handout picture released by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) shows Saudi Arabia's new King Salman bin Abdul Aziz (C) arriving for a ritual ceremony due to be a symbolic pledge of allegiance. -AFP/HO/SPA
Riyadh : Saudi Arabia’s new king inherits the throne at a moment when the kingdom is being buffeted by a plunge in the value of its most valuable commodity, and deepening turmoil on its borders.
Those who know the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, note his diplomatic skills, honed over nearly five decades as governor of the capital, Riyadh. Those abilities will be put to the test as he positions his country to confront a collapsing Yemen on its southern frontier and threats from the militant group to the north in Iraq.
But he is unlikely to bring fundamental changes to the country’s policies.
King Salman already has had plenty of opportunity to put his stamp on Saudi policies, both in his role as defence minister since 2011 and as he increasingly took over duties for his brother, King Abdullah, who died early Friday.
King Salman made clear he has no intention to shift course in a nationally televised address hours after he succeeded King Abdullah, vowing to hew to “the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment.” His biggest immediate crisis is how to deal with deeply impoverished Yemen, which is home to what the US sees as Al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch. Its militants have infiltrated the porous border to launch attacks against the country.
Yemen’s US and Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, quit just hours before King Salman ascended to the throne, driven out by pressure from Houthis who control the capital of Sanaa. The rebels have been accused of being backed by overwhelmingly Iran, although the Houthis deny any links.
“Their greatest worry is what’s going on in Yemen, which is very much their backyard,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Programme at The Washington Institute.
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said that from a Saudi perspective, the advances by the Houthis in Yemen add to a “sense of encirclement by Iran,” which is deepening its ties with Iraq and is the main regional patron for embattled Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
Iraq and a US-led coalition that includes Saudi air power is struggling to beat back the Daesh group across Saudi Arabia’s northern frontier. Earlier this month, gunmen with belts of explosives attacked a Saudi security patrol near the kingdom’s 1,200-km border with Iraq, killing three soldiers and wounding at least three more. Saudi Arabia swiftly gave shoot-to-kill orders to all border patrol afterward.
Saudi Arabia took a dim view of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, and Riyadh had been taking steps to mend ties with Iraq’s new leadership even before Salman’s ascension. It announced this month that it was considering reopening an embassy in Baghdad for the first time in more than two decades. A nearly 60 per cent drop in oil prices since summer could limit King Salman’s ability to maneuver in the long run.
While the country has hundreds of billions of dollars in cash reserves stashed away, lower oil prices give it less flexibility to maintain spending levels at home and to influence its policies abroad. Current oil prices of below $50 a barrel are well short of what the kingdom needs to balance its budget — $89 a barrel in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Ruling family members are nonetheless involved in the country’s biggest industry. One of King Salman’s sons, Prince Abdulaziz, is the deputy oil minister.
A ballooning youth population is putting pressure to do more to create well-paying jobs in the country, where more than half of the population of 20 million is under 25. Doing so will likely involve enticing more private-sector companies to a country where more than two-thirds of employed citizens work for the government.
Officials said last month that half of all public expenditures go for wages and allowances, so any cuts risk stirring resentment and undoing much of the goodwill generated by the extra spending that King Salman’s predecessor put in place.
The rapid rise of social media is also upending old assumptions, giving greater voice to young militants.
King Salman’s predecessor took some steps to empower women, including giving them seats on the government’s advisory Shoura Council and allowing them to participate in the Olympics for the first time in 2012.
But some limits on women’s freedom remain. Saudi women are increasingly challenging the strictures, particularly the prohibition on driving, by getting behind the wheel. Those acts of defiance are not likely to abate under King Salman.
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