By Bruce Riedel
January 16, 2019
Four years ago this month, Prince Salman
bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud ascended to the throne of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
His reign has changed the kingdom profoundly: It is more repressive than ever,
more unpredictable than ever and likely less stable than at any time in a half
century. The kingdom is in the midst of important and challenging
Salman was governor of Riyadh province for
a half century before his half-brother, King Abdullah, made him crown prince.
As the chief of the capital, Salman oversaw its transformation from a remote
desert town to a modern city and the centerpiece of the country. He did so with
the careful cultivation of the Wahhabi clerical establishment. He also was the
policeman of the royal family, most of whose members lived in his jurisdiction.
For a half century before his ascension to
the throne the line of succession in the kingdom was predictable and clear: The
sons of Ibn Saud would inherit the throne as they aged. The question of
succession is the Achilles heel of absolute monarchies.
Salman has twice changed the line of
succession without any explanation. Two crown princes have been dismissed to
open the door for the king’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Former Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is under house arrest, quarantined from his own
family. Apparently the king and crown prince regard Mohammed bin Nayef as a
potential rival for the loyalty of the royal family.
The fate of the former crown prince is
emblematic of the repression of the Saudi system under the Salmans. The kingdom
has never been a human rights beacon, especially not for women or Shiites. But
in the last four years it has become a brutal, repressive dictatorship. Women's
rights activists have been detained, tortured and abused by the crown prince’s
henchmen. Hundreds of Saudi business leaders, including royal family members,
were detained and shaken down for money and property in 2017; dozens are still
in jail. Most famously, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, apparently at
the crown prince’s direction in Istanbul, although the king has defended his
Salman travelled extensively in the first
three years of his reign, including lengthy trips to East Asia and annual
vacations in Morocco. In 2018, he didn’t travel at all. His health may explain
why he is not making official trips but does not explain why he didn’t make his
usual month long vacation. Perhaps the king feels the uncertainty in the
kingdom over his son’s succession does not allow for him to be out of the
country. The crown prince is scheduled to visit Pakistan next month.
Salman also shook up his Cabinet recently.
The most interesting change is in the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the
Praetorian Guard force that protects the monarchy from internal threats.
Traditionally this was the sinecure of Salman’s predecessor, Abdullah, who was
the guard commander for decades. He gave the post to his eldest son, Prince
Mitab. Mitab was removed in November 2017 when he was detained in the
The king has now made Prince Abdullah bin
Bandar bin Abdulaziz, 32, the new minister of Saudi Arabian National Guard
Affairs. He was previously deputy governor of Mecca. The prince has no military
experience or training, yet neither does the crown prince, who is also minister
The crown prince’s signature policy
initiative is the disastrous war in Yemen. The war has devastated the Arab
world’s poorest country and created the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
The Saudis have spent a fortune to defeat the Houthi rebels who are backed by
Iran, which spends a pittance.
A fragile UN-brokered truce in the port
city of Hodeidah is the first tangible step in years to bring the war to an
end. The international community urgently needs to support the UN process and
create a robust on-the-ground presence in Yemen to supervise prisoner
exchanges, the removal of blockades and the institution of a comprehensive
The kingdom is facing considerable challenges
as it tries to diversify its economy, expand the social space, reduce gender
discrimination and make a generational change in leadership. The Khashoggi
murder has made all of this much harder and added more uncertainty. The king
needs to end the Yemen war and ease the repression internally to have a chance
at surmounting the challenges.
Bruce Riedel is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Gulf Pulse. He is the
director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. His latest
book is "Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since