Prince Salman Seeks Balance in Saudi Transitional Period

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Riyadh's governor, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud (C), at an official ceremony in the Saudi capital Riyadh. (Photo: AFP - Hassan Ammar)

By: Basheer al-Baker

Published Thursday, November 3, 2011

From Governor of Riyadh to defense minister, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz takes more responsibilities in one of the most complex transitional periods in the history of the Saudi kingdom.

News has circulated in recent days of the Saudi king’s intention to reshuffle the government following the death of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz.

Leaked information suggests Prince Salman will head the defense ministry, relieving him of his post as Governor of Riyadh, which he has held since 1963.

Salman’s appointment as defense minister is a major promotion. The powerful post suggests that he is the next heir in line following current Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz’s ascension to the throne or his untimely death. This traditionally requires time spent in a prominent government position, such as the defense ministry.

Salman was the closest brother to the late Crown Prince Sultan, having remained at Sultan’s side in the previous three years of constant illness and recovery in New York and Morocco.

Salman, 76, is not the youngest among the sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud. Sources aware of the court’s affairs believe it is likely that royal succession according to age will stop with Salman. After him, the seniority rule will be broken, granting the second generation of grandchildren a chance to ascend to the Saudi throne.

Despite Salman’s old age and heart disease, he maintains a youthful spirit and is the most open to the younger generations. While he has maintained a close relationship with the religious institutions, it has not cut him off from liberal circles.

Salman has advanced opinions on reform and is welcoming of dialogue with opposition members. He enjoys a plethora of relationships with intellectuals from various political persuasions, both inside and outside the country. Through Salman’s supervision of the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, partially owned by his sons, he has played an important role in modernizing Saudi media.

An opposition Saudi source describes Salman’s personality as pragmatic and points to his ability to reconcile contradictory social and political forces. Although known as a conservative who supports the mutawwas (Wahhabi religious police), Salman also demonstrates empathy to the movements seeking to break traditions, including those supporting the right of women to drive.

Since 2006, Prince Salman has headed the Family Council, which is made up of 18 individuals. Roughly half of the council are the sons of the late King Abdul-Aziz, while the remainder are royal descendants of Saud bin Muhammad – the father of the founder of the first Saudi state. Theoretically, the council is limited to managing the family’s internal affairs and must keep clear of political matters. In reality, however, the council is involved in critical matters and executes important decisions.

The king had to adjourn a planned Family Council meeting at the end of Ramadan as it could not be held without Prince Salman, the council head, who was in New York with Sultan at the time. The meeting was to discuss the possibility of Crown Prince Sultan’s death and select his successor.

Saudi sources say that the council met after the end of the official mourning period for Sultan. A number of decisions were made, among them, declaring Nayef as Crown Prince and Salman as defense minister.

Salman was given the defense ministry for three reasons, the first of which is his conciliatory and diplomatic nature. It is well known that he takes special interest in the family’s internal affairs and has served as a mediator to settle disputes between prominent family members.

Salman is also part of a middle generation, a bridge between fathers and sons in the royal family. He remains close to both generations in social and cultural terms. He often participates in the social and cultural events organized by the new generation, as well as some of their travels abroad.

And as Governor of Riyadh – the economic and political hub of the country – he has managed to develop a wide network of relationships within the Arab and international spheres.

The rise of Salman is reassuring to the new generation of princes for a variety of reasons. His appointment to the defense ministry could mark the beginning of a new era for the notoriously corrupt institution. It could result in the curtailing of the Ministry’s huge military budget and an end to wrongful commissions on arms deals, a source of scandal in the international press.

Salman’s flexibility and openness will help offset Nayef’s hardline conservatism. Salman’s ties to liberal circles can help bridge those calling for reform and open a narrow margin for democratic participation in the strict monarchy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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