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Saudi Arabia– Who is King Salman?

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On 23 January, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah passed away at the age of 90. His crown was immediately passed to his younger half-brother King Salman. He takes the royal reins at a time when Yemen is experiencing government upheaval, tensions with Iran are extremely high, the threat of ISIS is increasing and some OPEC allies are calling for a shift in policy. Here are some facts about the new leader.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, born 31 December 1935. He was named successor to the throne in 2012. Salman had been chairing cabinet meetings for months as King Abdullah grew more ill, and began representing the kingdom as he travelled for state visits in place of Abdullah. In 2011, he was appointed Saudi’s Minister of Defence. He favours a positive relationship with the West and is responsible for the nation’s joining of the US-led coalition to strike ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Prior to this role, Salman was the governor of Riyadh province for nearly 50 years, working to attract tourism, capital projects and foreign investment. Under his tenure, the province grew from 200,000 to seven million inhabitants. His tenure was noted for good governance and lack of corruption.  Salman holds stake in one of the country’s largest media groups, and reportedly maintains relationships with a number of prominent journalists in the country. Saudi Arabia scores 84 (100 being the worst) on a press freedom index.

Salman is known to have provided an estimated $25million a month to the Afghan mujahedeen during the peak of the anti-Soviet conflict, before American financial assistance arrived. He is also known to have helped raise money for Bosnian Muslim in the war with Serbia.

One of his first messages to the 28 million citizens of Saudi Arabia is that he will continue the policies of his older brother. However some believe that Salman is less likely to be focused on social reform. An intercepted 2007 ambassador cable published by Wikileaks states, “[Salman] pointed out that democracy should not be imposed. He said that the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is composed of tribes and regions and if democracy were imposed, each tribe and region would have its political party.”

At the age of 79, he is suffering health issues. It is known that the monarch has suffered a stroke which left limited movement in his left arm. There have been persistent speculation that Salman suffers from dementia and the Economist reports he’s believed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. Saudi media, with its close ties to the monarchy, does not publish information about the ailments of leaders, but these have been strongly denied by the palace. The number of meetings on the King’s official schedule suggests these prognoses may be overstated. However some argue that his ambition to maintain stability for his country could be superseding his health concerns. His successor, who was appointed in 2013, is his half-brother, 69 year old Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who was partially educated at the Royal Air Force College.

Salman’s most critical issue now is addressing the turmoil in Yemen, which borders the kingdom in the south. In addition to the threat of penetration by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s Houthi movement has taken de facto control of the nation after the president and cabinet stepped down last week. The group signed an agreement on 27 January to form a coalition government, however the Shiite rebel fighters are heated rivals to Saudi Arabia’s Sunni government. Salman may seek to engage more proactively in Yemen in order to contain Iranian influence while encouraging an inclusive government.

In Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has pushed for better ties between the two countries. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has visited the kingdom for Abdullah’s funeral and the formal paying of respects. However, Tehran may view the new monarch as unwilling to engage in détente, particularly in light of the kingdom’s perception of Iranian support of the Houthis (which Tehran has denied) and their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the Saudis are opposed to. Bernard Haykel, professor of near east studies at Princeton, has said, “Salman is quite hawkish on Iran. He’s personally quite hawkish. The Iranians would have to do a lot for him to change his policy.”

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