KING SALMAN

 

1 FEBRUARY 2015

KING SALMAN

King Salman Bin Abdel Aziz has 50 years of experience in public service. His credentials are well-known to his own people with whom he mingled daily and abroad, where he established an extensive network of contacts. He took over as Governor of Riyadh, the capital, and transformed it substantially from a provincial though prestigious town as the capital to a metropolis of 5 million inhabitants.

During that period, he was known to listen attentively rather than talk extensively. He enjoyed meeting Bedouins petitioning for employment or distinguished prominent visitors from abroad. He organized a secretariat where contacts were quickly considered. He personally drove his car unlike several others who not only had drivers but were surrounded by caravans of limousines. His long governorship of the capital of Saudi Arabia made him also a referee within the Royal family.

Although he belonged to what was known as the Sudeiri seven brothers, whose elder Fahd became King, King Salman is known as a considerate listener to any Prince from any branch in the family. He would intervene where a dispute was likely to explode beyond red lines. His main position was a strict adherence to the unity of the Saudi family, which he thought was the most crucial element in governance. What gave him an extra edge was his attention to Arab and international media. While strictly avoiding the limelight, he read main media comments, knew who were the main columnists, and responded in his own subtle way. His travels abroad, particularly to Spain where he has an unassuming yet elegant mansion near the Port of Marbella, helped him develop friendships with royalty and presidents in several European capitals. His visits to New York on varied occasions, particularly when he accompanied his late brother, Crown Prince Nayef, introduced him more widely to decision-makers in the US and abroad.

As Governor of Riyadh, he has met with every United Nations Secretary-General since 1975, although he habitually kept his distance from getting involved in its operations, leaving details to the Foreign Ministry. Indicating how closely King Salman had followed Arab and international media, a journalist who joined the U.N. recalled that when he visited Saudi Arabia with the Secretary-General, the visiting group was received in Riyadh by the then Governor, who told him, "Now I know why I no longer see your column."

His wider credentials were further strengthened by his initiative to issue Arab and international daily, Asharq Al Awsat, which at great expense was published daily in London, New York, Tokyo, Paris and Sydney, as well as in Riyadh. Although he followed its work closely through one of his sons who was appointed Chairman of the newspaper's Board, he rarely interfered in its professional work nor did he suggest any special topic, leaving it of course to the judgment of the newspaper columnists who were drawn from all over the Arab and international world. King Salman's elder son, Prince Sultan, was the first Arab and Muslim Astronaut who flew with one of the earliest joint U.S./ International teams.

It was because of King Salman's strong credentials within the family and in a reflection of his decisive management style, he swiftly issued initial decrees on appointments of transition. While keeping the Crown Prince, Muqren, as decreed by the departing King, he appointed Prince Muhamad Bin Nayef, the first member of the family's third generation, as the Deputy Crown Prince. His son, Muhamad Bin Salman, was designated Director of his Office and Minister of Defence, indicating his determination to maintain control of the Army. Prince Muhamad Bin Nayef is well-known for his open confrontation with the Al-Qaida elements in Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; Al-Qaida tried to assassinate him a couple of years ago and he is likely to confront more openly the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

How would the takeover by King Salman impact the role of Saudi Arabia in the region, including its relationship with the neighbouring countries? Who would benefit and who would lose favour in the region and among the Saudi officials? What sort of relationship would the new regime have with the world's major capitals, particularly the international alliance with the United States?

It will be very interesting to watch and analyze as events evolve. There are, however, certain predictable internal moves. For example, Prince Bandar, former influential Ambassador to Washington who was Special Envoy for King Abdullah and head of the Saudi National Security Council, will most likely be relieved; the Ministry of Information would go to a professional Saudi journalist; a new Governor of the capital, Ryadh, a post once occupied by the current king would be selected; and the long-time influential Minister of Oil, Ali Nueimy, will be paying more attention to advice from one of his Ministry's Directors who happens to be a son of the new King.

Meanwhile, King Salman's work seems to be cut out for him and he will need all his experience and connections to deal with it.