New Saudi Arabian Leader King Salman, Similar Policies
Saudi Arabian King Abdullah passed away on January 23rd, 2015. He was the ruler of Saudi Arabia since 2005. His legacy has not been without debate, and without controversy. In fact, NPR has a great piece on this topic, discussing both his reforms in Saudi Arabia, as well as someone who did very little as a leader of the state. For example, some have spoke highly about his attempts at social reform, pointing to his work “[taking] the unprecedented step of opening a new university where men and women could mix in classrooms, part of his gradual campaign to modernize Saudi Arabia” (Keath & Al-Shihri, 2015 (AP)). However, many criticized his role in the region, for example, his statements and desired actions against Iran (Keath & Al-Shihri, 2015)) because of the geopolitical rivalry between the two states. In addition, while he intervened in helping the rebels in Syria, he also backed the government in Bahrain against democratic protesters; something that clearly illustrates his lack of commitment to human rights and to democratization. In fact, “In other countries, Abdullah was an iron-willed defender of the status quo, standing against any pressure from the street to change the autocratic Sunni Arab fraternity of monarchs, emirs and sheiks who rule the Gulf region from Kuwait to Oman. He also rushed to the aid of Egypt’s military-backed government when it overthrew that country’s Islamist president” (Keith & Al-Shihri, 2015). And, as the Guardian stated, “Abdullah will be remembered as someone who survived the wave of change, propped up by ‘black gold’, in his own kingdom by distributing largesse and repression and helped to reverse the prospect of democracy in the Arab world” (in NPR, 2015). The Guardian also writes of other failures, saying:
“Many Saudis had urged Abdullah to initiate change on social, educational, youth and economic issues when he was crown prince, and a minority considered these problems a consequence of the limited opportunities for political participation. Calls came for a radical transformation of the political system from absolute to constitutional monarchy. Reformers demanded that Abdullah should establish an elected consultative assembly to replace the 120-member appointed Shura council. Many observers viewed a wave of human rights petitions in 2003-05 as the new Riyadh spring that would lead to Saudi Arabia becoming a state of institutions rather than of princes.
But the reformers’ hopes were shattered when, in 2004, the minister of the interior, Prince Nayef, arrested many signatories. When Abdullah became king a few months later, he released the detainees and made promises to curb corruption and increase consultation. However, he failed to stop the tide of oppression that his brother had spread on the pretext of the war on terror. The passports of many peaceful activists were confiscated. Corruption went unchecked and the king remained silent over the Al-Yamamah arms deal, exposed in 2003 by the Guardian as a scandal implicating the British military contractor BAE Systems and Prince Sultan, Saudi minister of defence and also the crown prince.”
It is quite evident that King Abdullah was an authoritarian leader looking to maintain power, without inclusion of a democratic, citizen voice in the government, and was in fact able to do so through oil rents, as well as relationships with other authoritarian leaders, along with democratic states such as the United States, where various administrations seemed to strongly value the alliance with the Saudi king.
The new leader is his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman. He has been the Defense Minister of the country since the year 2011 (Keith & Al-Shihri, 2015, (AP)). And according to a report in Al Jazeera, “Saudi King Salman pledged Friday to maintain existing energy and foreign policies as he assumed the monarchy after his half-brother’s death, and quickly moved to name a deputy crown prince from his dynasty’s next generation, settling the succession for years to come.”
It is quite unfortunate that the power continues to reside in the monarchy, and that there are no moves for a democratic political structure in the state. Sadly, I worry that women’s rights, religious minority rights, sexual minority rights, along with other human rights will continue to be ignored by the government. The Saudi state will continue to use oil profits to buy off support, and provide selected services, so that threats to the regime are minimized. But this will do little for human rights, and little for democratization in the country.