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Panel: Shifts in Saudi Leadership Raise Questions of Stability

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with the late King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who died in early 2015. US State Department Photo

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with the late King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who died in early 2015. US State Department Photo

The late April shuffling of the line of succession to the Saudi Arabian throne, plus a major shift in ministers of defense and foreign affairs, raised a number of questions about stability in the kingdom, continuing sectarian warfare in the Middle East, a new arms race in the region and future energy prices.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Friday at the Washington-based Atlantic Council that King Salman’s moves reflect his age, 79.

“It was time, really time to have a young prince … provide the bridging” to the future, he said. Therefore, the king named Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, as crown prince. He had been serving as minister of the interior. The king also named his son, Mohammed bin Salman, 30, as deputy crown prince and minister of defense, and Adel al Jabeir, 53, as foreign minister.

Almost as soon as those changes were announced, Saudi Arabia began playing a more active role in regional affairs, particularly in Yemen, where it launched an air campaign against Houthi insurgents.

“What, if anything, have they accomplished” in the air campaign, he asked, either in slowing the Shi’ite insurgents or countering the Sunni threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Where Saudi Arabia had in the past tried to establish a physical barrier with Yemen, it now appears to be trying to create a buffer zone in Yemen, he said. “Yemen is one of the few countries in the world development experts have given up on” because of its many problems – from violent sectarian and tribal divides to terrorism to water and energy disputes.

Cordesman cited Saudi Arabia’s troubled neighbors – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt – as well as the Gulf states as reasons for the kingdom’s accelerated moves to protect its borders and extend its reach. He termed the Gulf states as “weak partners” to the Saudis in addressing their own security issues.

Even though the kingdom plans to buy $90 billion in weapons from the United States over the coming three to five years, Saudi Arabia’s immediate security concern remains Shi’ite-dominated Iran and particularly its nuclear program.

Yet for all its ongoing military spending, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea and Gulf fleets need to be modernized, which the Saudis have done with its air force but not its naval fleet.

Cordesman said that Iran – with its nuclear ambitions and meddling in Arab nations’ affairs – is “a long, long way from us, but it’s right on their back door.”

Saudi Arabia also faces instability from the Islamic State’s threats to Iraq and Syria, fighting in Yemen, and Gulf states such as Bahrain facing their own problems with succession and providing opportunity for all their citizens.

Regarding U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Saudis “do not see the nuclear agreement as having any positive impact” because “it is not going to counter Iranian nuclear capability.” Rather, the Saudis feel the Americans are failing to contain Iran and its ambitions.

For their part, Saudi officials have said, “If Iran can have a fuel cycle, we have a fuel cycle,” which means building nuclear reactors – which it plans to do on a large scale.

Looking at oil and energy in the wake of the changes in Saudi leadership, Jean-Francois Seznec, a visiting professor for contemporary Arab studies at Georgetown University, said the sector remains in technocratic hands at Saudi Aramco and other energy businesses and ministries. “Nothing much has changed. I don’t expect much change in policy,” which encourages high rates of production even at low prices. What could change is increased emphasis on solar energy for internal use – which the country has already built two plants for – development of natural gas for potential export, and expanding development of nuclear power by building 16 plants over the next 20 years.

He doubted whether lifting sanctions on Iranian oil exports if a nuclear accord is reached would have much impact on the market, but Iran could become a major exporter of natural gas regionally and to Europe. If Iraq is able to reach full oil production, it could have a major impact on Saudi energy policy.

Francis Ricciardone, a former ambassador to Turkey who now works at the Atlantic Council, said the kingdom appears to be “the most resistant of the Arab states” to change but may actually be nearing a “tipping point.”

He cited the King Salman Center for Innovation in Government as an example. The center recently undertook a study to determine how many agencies the government actually operates, and then explored some agencies in depth to understand best practices that could be applied across the government.

That tipping point for change, though, could be reached in a positive or harmful manner. Discussing employment opportunities, Ricciardone said that, on the positive side, a large number of Saudis study abroad in places like the United States and United Kingdom and still come back home afterwards. He estimated that as many as 100,000 had done so over the past decade – with similar trends in other Gulf states – because the countries can still offer their citizens career opportunities.

On the other hand, he said, the unemployment rate for Saudis under 24 is 30 percent, and 80 percent of the kingdom’s work force is foreign.