RIYADH – King Salman of Saudi Arabia signalled continuity at a time of turmoil in the Middle East on Friday â€“ but paved the way for a new generation of royals to take power as his predecessor Abdullah was buried and his subjects swore their allegiance.
Salman, who is 79 and widely said to be in poor health, became king, as long expected, on the death of his half-brother, aged 90, in the early hours of the morning. The new crown prince and heir to the throne is Prince Muqrin, 69.
In a carefully-choreographed transition, Saudi media emphasised the kingâ€™s grandiose title of Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines â€“ a reference to Mecca and Medina â€“ to underscore his Muslim credentials as a key element of Saudi legitimacy.
Salmanâ€™s first public remarks as monarch, even before Abdullahâ€™s burial, were designed to send a bland and reassuring message of stability. â€œWe will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,â€ he said in a speech on state TV.
â€œThe Arab and Islamic nations are in dire need of solidarity and cohesion.â€ He used the phrase â€œthe straight pathâ€ â€“ language taken directly from the Qurâ€™an.
Violence in neighbouring Yemen, a turbulent oil market, the threat of the jihadis of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as at home, a young, job-hungry generation, liberals demanding freedoms, an irritating foreign focus â€“ by people if not governments â€“ on human rights, are all concerns for ageing royals who are often criticised as dysfunctional and corrupt.
Abdullahâ€™s burial conformed to the simple, no-frills rites associated with the Saudi branch of Sunni Islam â€“ Wahhabism to its detractors â€“ the corpse wrapped in a simple shroud with no flags or ceremonial, the interment in an unmarked grave to avoid the risk of its becoming a shrine.
The presence of kings and emirs from Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar demonstrated the solidarity of fellow western-backed autocrats banding together to preserve their own positions in the polarised aftermath of the Arab spring. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Pakistanâ€™s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also took part in funeral prayers at the giant Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in Riyadh.
Iranâ€™s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, represented Saudi Arabiaâ€™s bitterest regional rival.
Abdullahâ€™s great age and poor health meant there were no surprises but two key and senior appointments pointed to significant change ahead â€“ the start of the handover of power to a new generation of the Al Saud family.
Salman and Muqrin are both sons of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who founded the conservative kingdom in the 1920s. The new deputy crown prince â€“ thus now second-in-line to the throne â€” is Muhammad bin Nayef, a nephew of Abdullah and the first and one of the most capable of the grandsons and great nephews of Ibn Saud who will compete for power in the future.
Even at a time of change, perhaps especially at a time of change, ruling Saudi Arabia remains a strictly family affair â€“ with the modern state named after its founding dynasty, as if the UK was called Windsoria.
Bin Nayef is 55 and no stripling himself. But he has a reputation as a moderniser and is well versed in the ways of the west. Governments in Washington and London admire him in his role as interior minister. Having previously been in charge of Saudi counter-terrorist efforts, he survived a close-quarters assassination attempt by an al-Qaida suicide bomber.
Bin Nayef is the son of the former crown prince and interior minister, who died before he could ascend the throne. His appointment helps to cement the dominance of the new kingâ€™s Sudairi branch of the royal family.
Significantly, MBN â€“ as friends refer to him â€“ remains interior minister as well as occupying the number two slot in the succession. Muqrinâ€™s shortcomings â€“ he is widely described as genial but ineffective â€“ may play to Bin Nayefâ€™s advantage, analysts and diplomats suggested.
Prospects for future reform beyond the glacial changes under Abdullah remain unclear, though the Saudi liberal view, usually whispered rather than spoken out loud, is that the monarchy must adapt to survive: the big question is whether any moves will be made towards representative government in a country with neither an elected parliament nor political parties and a profoundly conservative religous establishment. Womensâ€™ rights, including the high-profile issue of driving, are another signifcant bellwether.
Another key appointment suggests that the direction of travel is clear. Salman named his own son, Prince Muhammad, to replace him as defence minister. Muhammad was born in 1980, making him almost an infant in a system hitherto dominated by men in their late 70s and 80s. The prince was head of his fatherâ€™s court when Salman was crown prince and is said to be among his favourite sons.
Other princes to watch are four of Abdullahâ€™s sons who are already in prominent positions: the National Guard minister, Prince Mitab; Prince Turki, governor of Mecca; Prince Mishaal, governor of Riyadh; and Abdulaziz, who is deputy foreign affairs minister.
Although the emphasis in Riyadh is now on stability and continuity, surprises may yet lie ahead over the succession.
Saudis and foreigners alike point to Prince Ahmed, 72 and one of the last surviving competent sons of Ibn Saud, as someone who may try to disrupt the move to the next generation.
â€œPrince Muqrin does not have a reputation for competence, and if he is in the line of succession when â€¦ Salman dies, there could be an intervention to bypass him,â€ said the strategic consultancy Stratfor. â€œIf this occurs, Prince Ahmad is the likely replacement.â€
For the moment though, in the mysterious world of Saudi-watching, an Arabian version of cold war-era Kremlinology, all eyes are on Bin Nayef. â€œNaming MBN is a decisive moment for the Saudis,â€ said a diplomat with long experience in Riyadh. â€œHe is a moderniser and a relative liberal and would be the first Saudi monarch with a western education â€“ though Muqrin has a western education too. Bin Nayef, through the interior ministry, has his finger on the pulse of the nation. He knows better than anyone how ready the Saudi public is for more progress â€“ and how much conservative opposition there is as well. King Abdullah had huge regard for him. So even that is part of his long-term legacy.â€
Another notable move â€“ though harder to interpet â€“ was the removal of Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the powerful chief of the Royal Court and Abdullahâ€™s private secretary. Overall, the transition won high marks from expert observers: â€œThere is no indication that the new king or his successors will not have the continuing support of Saudi technocrats, Saudi Arabiaâ€™s educated elite, and Saudi Arabiaâ€™s business leaders,â€ said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. â€œIt is also worth pointing out that there has been no serious sign of popular unrest or disaffection in the Saudi security services.â€ – The Guardian