When it comes to Saudi foreign policy, the forthcoming succession is not the most crucial – the one to follow is.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has passed away after nearly 10 years as the country’s top leader, handing his throne to a 79-year-old brother and raising questions about succession within the oil-rich gulf kingdom.
King Abdullah officially assumed the country’s top role in 2005, but has largely been seen as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since the mid-1990s. Saudi’s status as one of the world’s largest oil exporters, as well as its role in regional power struggles, means that King Abdullah’s death is being observed closely around the world.
For the ruling al-Saud royal family, King Abdullah’s passing also raises the question of a possible generational shift to the throne.
Since the 1953 death of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia’s modern-state founder, his eldest living son has always been succeeded by the next brother in line – so long as he was able and willing to rule.
While King Abdullah’s age was believed to be close to 90, the next two designated crown princes, Salman and Muqrin, are themselves already almost 80 and 70 years old respectively.
Since 2011, Saudi Arabia had buried two crown princes and now a king. In October 2011, then Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud died at a New York hospital after a string of health issues.
During King Abdullah's reign, he has inspired a greater openness in two particular areas: role of women and freedom of expression.
Less than a year later, Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, then next in line and believed to be 79 at the time of his death, passed away in the Swiss city of Geneva on June 16, 2012.
The next crown prince, now king, is 79-year-old Salman al-Saud. He has been representing Saudi Arabia at most official events, including the latest Gulf summit in Qatar last month.
Perhaps anticipating the potential questions surrounding the country’s succession issue, King Abdullah established the allegiance council in 2006, made up of his brothers and nephews, who decide collectively on succession.
The allegiance council, with King Abdullah’s blessing, added an unprecedented position to the line of succession: a deputy crown prince. At a much younger age of 68, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was widely seen as Saudi Arabia’s next king should Salman decide to pass on the title.
Despite the uncertainty, Joseph Kechichian, a columnist for the Gulf News newspaper and a specialist on GCC relations, told Al Jazeera that there are no causes for concern as the system in place is “well-oiled”.
“Prince Salman will succeed the monarch and will, in turn, designate Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, as his own heir. Soon thereafter, the allegiance council will confirm these appointments and there will be no succession crisis,” Kechichian said.
Considered as one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchs, King Abdullah was known, in many circles, as a devout and conservative Muslim with strong ties to the country’s Bedouin tribes. At the same time, he pushed for greater change in the kingdom.
“During King Abdullah’s reign, he has inspired a greater openness in two particular areas: role of women and freedom of expression. And there is [an] outburst of criticism, social criticism and of government policy that happened in Saudi Arabia with the tolerance to some degree of the Saudi government,” Christoph Wilcke, former Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
King Abdullah paved the way for municipal elections, granting women the right to vote and run for office, and issued them with identification cards – allowing them for the first time to do business without involving a male guardian.
“There is no going back as the kingdom is embarked on epochal changes, which have a pace of their own. Young Saudis, both men and women, are increasingly responsible for their actions and have long-term goals to assume their share of the nation-building burden,” Kechichian said.
King Abdullah’s record on human rights, however, remained controversial. His critics believe he could have done more – given Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth – to help the Saudi population, especially the younger generation.
“King Abdullah isn’t a reformer but a modernist. There’s a difference,” Ali Alyami, director of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told Al Jazeera. “Most human rights activists have been imprisoned during his reign. Yes, he’s taken reformist steps, but they’re mainly cosmetic in the sense that he has appeased women activists by allowing them to run for office and holding a municipal election. But most of those in elected office have no real political assignments.”
In recent years, activists who have demanded change through public petitions ended up in jail. Political parties and public demonstrations are officially banned. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia began the trial of two Saudi women, Loujain al-Hathloul and and Maysa al-Amoudi. Both were stopped and later arrested for breaking a ban on female driving when they attempted to cross from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. They were eventually referred to a specialised court on terrorism charges.
In a previous interview with Al Jazeera, Toby Jones, professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University, said King Abdullah had to show his unyieldingness in order to keep power: “[He] may have allowed debate and some movement on social issues, but the regime benefits by allowing its allies and adversaries to argue over things rather than embrace real change.”
The monarch’s death is being watched internationally due to the country’s role as one of the world’s largest oil exporters, but more so regionally, where Saudi Arabia plays a significant role in the US-led coalition air strikes against fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Within minutes of a state television report about his hospitalisation, Saudi Arabia’s stocks, which were already down more than 1 percent due to sliding oil prices, dropped 5 percent lower.
Analysts, however, say this is purely coincidence. “There are many hands other than the king invested in keeping Saudi [oil] production at its current levels, and ensuring that security and logistical issues are taken care of. Of all the things that could be affected by a dying monarch, this oddly enough is probably the least affected,” Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI) Qatar, told Al Jazeera.
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In addition, the potential issue of Saudi Arabia’s policies towards ISIL will remain unchanged, analysts say. “On this particular issue the House of Saud stands together because the nature of the threat from ISIL threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling house by destabilising its Islamic roots. There will be no change in the policy,” Stephens said.
King Abdullah’s naming of his youngest brother Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz as deputy crown prince came with both praise and criticism. This is because Muqrin, the youngest born to the founding King Abdulaziz, has a Yemeni mother.
Still, Khaled al-Maeena, editor-at-large of the Saudi Gazette, says no one from the Saudi street is really bothered about Prince Muqrin’s heritage, as long as the job gets done.
“It doesn’t matter to the people what his heritage is. Yes, it’s true, there are those within some circles in Saudi Arabia that don’t want him to succeed to the throne, but these are narrow-minded people.”
For now, Maeena says that Saudis have to take a step back and reflect on the late King Abdullah’s legacy.
“Saudi Arabia is a rumour factory and one has to wait and see regarding the succession. Hundreds and thousands of people, including the youth, were praying for the king’s health to recover. That is something I’ve never seen before with any other GCC leader’s death. This is because he listened to the changing needs of a modernising people, and that will remain as his legacy,” Maeena said.