Three days ago, Saudi Arabia proclaimed a new heir to the royal throne for the second time in less than a year. Crown Prince Salman will take the place of the late Prince Nayef, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 78 having only held the position for eight months.
With Prince Salman only two years younger than his predecessor, questions surrounding Saudi succession are rife. Dr. Sara Bazoobandi, a visiting research fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI) who specializes in the Gulf, maintains that succession has always been a concern for the Saudi royal family, with age playing a particularly critical role. Although Bazoobandi does not expect massive changes in Saudi Arabia as a result of Prince Salman’s ascension, she is hopeful that it may be the beginning of a transition in which the third generation of Saudi princes steps up to take the throne.
Known for being more open-minded and less of a hardliner than the late Prince Nayef, Prince Salman is perceived with cautious optimism by MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson. “Prince Nayef’s death may give King Abdullah more ‘wiggle’ room to implement moderately progressive policies,” he says. “However, any change will be at best glacial, with stability being the overriding concern.”
In the foreign policy domain, no significant changes are expected. “I met Prince Salman once, and I hear he has a long history of being a realist,” Hudson says. “Therefore I don’t expect to see any significant shifts in Saudi Arabia’s position, in particular toward Iran.” Economically, Bazoobandi affirms that there will be little change in oil pricing strategy. “I was monitoring the oil markets,” she notes, “and it seems that there is a consensus that the status quo will persist.”
In closing, Hudson cautions against revolving analysis solely around the royal family. “There are two Saudi Arabias,” he asserts. “We should not simply fixate on royal family politics and ignore the other 27 million people that make up the Saudi population.” The latter, he claims, continues to face a myriad of social problems that will have a bearing on regime succession and durability. “Will the ‘royal’ Saudi Arabia be able to perceive and effectively govern the ‘ordinary’ Saudi Arabia with its strains and tensions?” Hudson asks.
Perhaps only time will tell.
MEI’s Conversations Series features informal interviews with prominent individuals about current events and/or their experience and work relating to the Middle East, Asia, and the Institute.
Interview by MEI intern David Wong De-Wei.