RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Within hours of ascending to the Saudi throne, King Salman announced sweeping changes that would recast the kingdom’s line of succession, and rework its security and economic decision-making processes. It marked the start of what would be a tumultuous year for King Salman, who completes one year as monarch on Saturday.
His reign so far has been marked by a boldness that one Western intelligence agency labelled as “impulsive.” However, supporters and admirers of the monarch prefer to describe him as “decisive.”
Salman, believed to be in his mid-80s, inherited the throne Jan. 23, 2015 after the death of his 90-year-old half-brother King Abdullah, who had ruled Saudi Arabia for a decade. Almost immediately he dismissed two of his predecessor’s sons as governors of Riyadh and Mecca, eliminated 12 different government committees and councils, elevated his then-29-year-old son to defense minister and placed him as a lead member on two new super-committees overseeing the country’s security and economic affairs.
Since then, Salman has led his country into an aggressive new stance confronting longtime regional rival Iran, leading a military coalition fighting Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen and unsuccessfully lobbying against Iran’s newly implemented nuclear deal with world powers. Domestically, he has urgently taken on economic reforms to counter the impact of plunging oil prices. Salman has also continued to concentrate power in the hands of his son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.
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Though few of Saud Arabia’s allies have publicly critiqued Salman’s policies as king, a German intelligence analysis released by the BND spy agency last month cited concern over the kingdom’s future as it tries to “establish itself as a leader in the Arab world.”
“The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leaders within the royal family is being replaced by a new impulsive policy of intervention,” the German report said, adding that the kingdom is “prepared to take unprecedented military, financial and political risks.”
The intelligence report said the concentration of economic and foreign policy power in the hands of Mohammed bin Salman carried a “latent risk” with other members of the royal family, the public and allied states in the region.
In contrast to the cautious and paternal reputation Abdullah had earned, Salman’s reign has been frequently described by the Saudi government press as “decisive,” a term born out of his decision to launch the “Operation Decisive Storm” military intervention in Yemen.
Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University, says this past year has shown Salman to be “a risk-taker.”
While Abdullah’s foreign policy also sought to counter the influence of predominantly-Shiite Iran, it was Salman who committed Saudi warplanes and ground troops outside the country’s borders to fight the Shiite rebels who had forced Yemen’s internationally-backed government into exile. Ten months into the Yemen war, the military intervention has proven controversial, its successes questionable; the conflict has killed 5,800 people since March and left more than 80 percent of the Yemeni population in dire need of food and water, according to international aid agencies.
“King Abdullah had himself portrayed in many ways as a paternal figure. That doesn’t seem to be King Salman’s desire,” Gause said. “They’re portraying themselves as tough guys,” he said, referring to the king and his defense minister son.
In a recent surprise move, Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in December the creation of a 35-nation Islamic counterterrorism military alliance that would be headquartered in Saudi Arabia. The move was interpreted as an effort to further project Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the region and to counter the narrative that Saudi Arabia’s arming of Syrian rebels has also aided extremist groups.
Throughout the past week, Saudi newspapers marked the Islamic calendar anniversary of Salman’s first year as monarch with articles proclaiming him to be the king of “decisiveness and hope.” Businessmen and senior princes took out full-page newspaper advertisements expressing their loyalty and support for the king and his successors.
Salman inherited a host of domestic challenges, including the need to create more affordable housing and jobs for Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning young population. The collapse of the price of oil to under $30 a barrel has forced Saudi Arabia to rein back handouts to the public, including lifting some subsidies and raising petrol prices.
Saudi Arabia posted a $98 billion budget deficit last year and expects an $87 billion deficit for 2016. The kingdom has been working for years to try and attract foreign investment and diversify its economy away from oil, including opening up the stock market to foreign investors in 2015.
However, it’s most anticipated economic move may still be yet to come. In an interview with The Economist, Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the kingdom is studying launching an initial public offering for the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabian Oil Co.
On social reforms, Abdullah allowed for some greater women’s rights, including a decision to allow Saudi women to vote and run for the first time in government elections for municipal councils.
As generational and social changes take root, the Yemen war effort put calls for democratic reforms on hold, according to activists. The country’s leaders have projected the Yemen war as a defense of Sunnis against Iran, which has supported Shiite militias in Iraq and the government of Bashar Assad in Syria, where Saudi Arabia is arming Sunni rebels.
One month after the March 2015 launch of the Yemen war, Saudi citizens awoke to find that one crown prince had been replaced with another overnight — this time from a new, younger generation of princes. Interior Minister and counter-terrorism czar, Mohammed bin Nayef, was announced as first-in-line to the throne. Mohammed bin Salman was appointed deputy crown prince and second-in-line.
In Riyadh, a vague sense of pride and nationalism was whipped up by the war. The bombing campaign also helped elevate Mohamed bin Salman, who was overseeing the military intervention.
“I think that they thought that it would be a way to enhance their political capital and to demonstrate that they are more a more decisive leadership than that of King Abdullah, that they are more willing to confront Iran and sort of go at it alone,” said Hani Sabra, head of Middle East practice at Eurasia Group.
Relations between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite power Iran have been tense for decades, but the divide has only widened during Salman’s year on the throne.
Iran seized on these tensions in September after a crush of crowds during the annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage killed at least 2,400 people, among them some 464 Iranian pilgrims, according to an independent Associated Press tally. A few weeks before that, a crane collapsed in Mecca, killing 111 people who were praying at Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba.
Iran accused Saudi Arabia of negligence and called on the kingdom to share its prestigious custodianship of Mecca with other Muslim countries. Under King Salman, Saudi royals largely ignored Iran’s criticisms and have yet to release details into their investigation of the stampede or adjust their official death toll of 769.
Tensions with Iran only worsened after Jan. 2, when Saudi Arabia executed 47 people convicted of terrorism-related charges. Most of them were alleged militants convicted of allegiance with al-Qaida, but included in the mass executions was a prominent Shiite cleric and a leader of Saudi Arabia’s disgruntled Shiite minority.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s execution sparked protests in Iran, with mobs ransacking the Saudi Embassy there, prompting Saudi Arabia to sever diplomatic relations altogether with its regional rival. Several other Gulf Arab allies also cut or downgraded their relations with Tehran, prompting a deepening regional stand-off in recent weeks.
Toby Matthiesen, author of “Sectarian Gulf,” says the Saudi response to Iran following al-Nimr’s execution partially reflects declining Saudi trust in the U.S. as a strategic ally in the region following the Obama Administration’s rapprochement with Iran and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran this month.
“They wanted to seem tough, show their population that they will not tolerate any dissent,” Matthiesen said. “They want to be seen as the leader of the Sunni world and they’re pushing a Saudi nationalism that is based on Arabism and Sunni Islam.”
The sheikh’s brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, told The Associated Press that his family had hoped King Salman would not sign off on the execution. When asked what he thought about Salman’s past year as monarch and what’s to come for Saudi Arabia, he said “the future is not comforting.”
“It is very painful. As Muslims, we have faith in God but the picture is bleak, it’s black,” al-Nimr said.
Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ayaelb