06.16.12

Meet Prince Salman, the Next Saudi King

He’s 76 years old, a hawk when it comes to Iran, a dove when it comes to peaceful reform—and, with the death of his brother, the kingdom’s new heir. Bruce Riedel on Prince Salman.

For the second time in less than a year, the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has died in office. Prince Nayif ascended to become Crown Prince last October when his brother Prince Sultan passed away. Now Nayif has died in Geneva after months of ill health. The good news for Saudis is that his successor is all but certain to be Prince Salman, a more pragmatic and progressive prince with a half century’s experience as the governor and builder of the kingdom’s capital, Riyadh.

Nayif, born in 1933 and interior minister since 1975, was never a proponent of reform, and advocated a tough line on human-rights issues for decades. He opposed giving women the right to drive, or extending equality rights to the minority Shia. He was a prime mover behind the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain a year ago to smash an incipient Shia reform movement. He hated Iran with a passion intense even by Saudi standards. Nayif was also the most skeptical senior prince about America—he held American intelligence services at arm’s length for many years, grudgingly agreeing to increase cooperation only when al Qaeda opened a major offensive to topple the Saudis in 2004.

For Nayif and other Saudi hardliners, the reformist demands for clipping the power of the mukhabarat (secret police) in the kingdom and other Arab states was a direct threat to their authority. From the MOI’s inverted pyramid headquarters in Riyadh, Nayif tracked down al Qaeda and its sympathizers with a ruthless zeal. He did the same to Iranian-backed Shia dissidents in Saudi Hizballah. Any and all dissent was smashed.

Nor is the new heir, Prince Salman, a dove on al Qaeda or Iran. Since he became defense minister last year upon Sultan’s death, he has aggressively pushed the Saudi military to be ready for conflict with Iran if necessary, and has pushed Yemen to take on al Qaeda.  There is no sign he disagrees with the occupation of Bahrain.

Salman also has a reputation, well deserved, for accepting and working with peaceful change.

But Salman also has a reputation, well deserved, for accepting and working with peaceful change in the kingdom. Born on Dec. 31, 1935, he is a son of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the modern kingdom’s father, and the brother of the current King Abdullah as well as Nayif and Sultan. He is a decade younger than his senior brothers. His health is also poor, but he probably stands a good chance at becoming king when Abdullah dies.

Salman was governor of Riyadh province from 1963 until last year. When he assumed the job, the city was a small remote place with a population of less than 200,000. Within a decade, it had half a million inhabitants; today, the greater urban area is home to 7 million people. Salman oversaw this huge transformation—including the construction of desalinization plants to bring water, massive highway infrastructure development, and huge housing blocks.

When the city became the capital in the 1980s, replacing Jiddah, Salman oversaw the construction of its diplomatic quarter to house the foreign embassies. The movement of foreign diplomats to Riyadh was a tricky issue. In Jiddah they lived in a more traditionally tolerant Hejazi city; in Riyadh they would be in the heartland of the Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalist Nejd. Salman pulled it off. He also pushed the kingdom to advance in technology and sciences: one of his sons, Sultan bin Salman, became the first Muslim to go into space on an American shuttle flight.

Change in Saudi Arabia is a subtle and incremental process. King Abdullah has a well-deserved reputation of being a reformer. Abdallah and Nayif were an odd couple in many ways, one a reformer the other a hardliner. The team of Abdallah and Salman will be more philosophically in harmony than the previous one, and Salman is likely to continue Abdallah’s modest reforms without undermining them.

The Arab awakening has put change on the agenda in the kingdom like never before. Young Saudis are watching the revolutions in their neighbors carefully. Shia unrest has grown; women are pushing for more independence and authority. The royal family has spent tens of billions in the last year to buy off dissent. Once the allegiance council, the body created by Abdullah to choose his heir, selects Salman as crown prince, the kingdom will be a little better prepared to handle the storms ahead.