A Reader Writes…

Whatandthewhy reader Nigel Thompson on Wolf Hall and the Saudi Succession.

“Which Way Should The World Look?  (And why there was a rush of leaders to Riyadh)

While pressure was building around the situation with Putin and Ukraine; the possibility of Grexit was on the cards – creating a possible pincer on Turkey between IS and Russian influence; world leaders and country representatives headed to Riyadh to pay their respects to the new King Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, announced on 23 January, probably as uncertain as his date of birth, and the accession of King Salman have raised many hopes, issues and concerns.

Many of the hopes are that Abdullah was only playing lip service to reform that Salman might go on to deliver; the issues are that the succession has occurred at a very difficult time in geopolitics; and the concerns are around the new King’s health and the sudden re-empowerment of the religious police in the Kingdom (The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, to give them their full name).

Several things are important here.  The House of Saud is a complex organism.  Saudi Arabia was effectively unified as a country from Bedouin culture as recently as 1932 – although there where skirmishes thereafter. Abdul Aziz al Saud was the founder of the unified state.  Every King since his death in 1953 has been one of his sons.  (He reportedly had 46 sons and it is suggested that daughters were in the majority of his progeny, although the number was never recorded – several wives were necessary for this too, accounts differ between 15 and 22).  And the issue of the “Half Blood Prince” to borrow a phrase from JK Rowling, has remained at the heart of the politics of the House of Saud.

When some commentators describe the King as an absolute monarch, they are over simplifying greatly.  Saudi is no Wolf Hall.  The politics within the clan are significant.  In the last 50 years kings have been deposed and assassinated.  No significant decision is taken without widespread consultation.  That may not be universal suffrage, but it is not Henry VIII.  And that is before the religious authorities have been consulted for their approval.

It is unlikely that King Abdul Aziz was aware of the writings of Karl Marx, but he did share the view that “[religion] is the opium of the people”.  The Saud tribe had embraced the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhabin during the mid 18th Century.  This strict form of orthodox Sunni Islam has been spread and practised in the Kingdom since its modern formation, despite a few pockets of Shia stubbornness in the Eastern Province. It has served to sustain the stability of the regime, while stoking sectarianism.

Bolstered by the fact that the Kingdom also has the two holiest places in the Islamic World within its borders, Saudi has come to see itself as the leader of – at least the Sunni – Muslim world.  That also led to Shia Iran becoming its regional nemesis since the 1979 Theocratic Revolution.

So why does this matter?

Ever since the first King of modern Saudi Arabia met President Roosevelt on a ship in the Red Sea in 1945, around the time of the Yalta Conference, there was an expectation of a “special relationship”, between Washington and Riyadh that was to some degree, spurred by the pre-war discovery of oil and the continued offering of exploration concessions to US companies.

That relationship has since cooled, especially over the course of this century and a perception that Obama is beginning to show signs of appeasement to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  A red line for Saudi Arabia.  It is a widely held view that the violent terrorist actions that occurred within Saudi during the early 2000s were a reaction to the late King allowing US troops on Saudi soil during the first Gulf War.

Like all politicians, democratically elected or not, human nature tends to self-preservation.  Even lame ducks have a legacy to protect.  The House of Saud faces many challenges to that.  They are both domestic and international.

Domestically, that means the fronts it is facing to the north with IS and to the south in Yemen are a priority, but also the future of the House of Saud.  To a West reluctant to intervene as it did over the past 20 years, a stable Saudi Arabia is critical. The West hopes that Saudi Arabia will lead the way to achieve what more reticent politicians will not.

Internationally, in recent years, Saudi has looked increasingly away from Washington towards the east for markets for its oil, for sources of substantial inward investment in key infrastructure and to extend its sphere of influence.  China and South Korea are some of their key eastern allies.

A stable Saudi Arabia is key to Western interests, which is why world leaders have descended on Riyadh.  It may be the case that King Salman has moved swiftly to secure powerful positions for the Full Blood Princes of his line, but he has made a crucial move to appoint his full blood nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as Deputy Crown Prince, the first of the grandchildren of King Abdul Aziz to be given such a role.  A move the West will likely applaud.”

Nigel Thompson is a UK solicitor specialising in project finance in the Middle East, India, Europe, and Africa.

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