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If the ruling Al-Sa'ud family of Saudi Arabia didn't already know how important the country is in world geopolitics, the wall to wall coverage of the passing of King 'Abdallah and his replacement by half-brother Salman should provide them the answer. The coverage is split, some praising 'Abdallah as a reformer, and fervently hoping that Salman is a "moderate", others concentrating on conservatism of his rule, the beheadings, the whippings and the servility of women in this obscured oil kingdom. Whatever the truth, Saudi Arabia is a country that excites passion, often directed at its staggering, ostentatious wealth, obscurantist conservatism or lamentable human rights record. The reality is that it is a country easy to judge, but much harder to understand; a reflection on the reign of 'Abdallah and the early actions of Salman provides just such an opportunity to understand. What is clear in the smooth transition to Salman is that the core tenets of Saudi Arabia and the Al-Sa'ud – stability and continuity – will remain. There is to be no radical rupture with the past leading to instantaneous reform, but no return to the past either.
Like the state he ruled, 'Abdallah was often seen at odds with the modern world around him; a nonagerian ruler with a stammer ruling a country where 60% of the population is under 30, and twitter usage is the highest in the world. 'Abdallah was a man of his country, and the tribal traditions he emerged from, a deep conservative unwilling to challenge the fundamental status quo of religiosity and patriachy, says Charlie Pratt..
That image misunderstands the deceased King greatly. He was a conservative Islamist, an absolute monarch with little truck for dissent. All Saudi Kings are. But 'Abdallah was also a radical change from the past - a reformer when so few before him had been and a man of integrity with a pragmatic gradualist approach to the political and economic changes his country so badly needs. Few realise quite how staggering the changes that 'Abdallah wrought in the system were inside the Kingdom. 'Abdallah took the most rigid, orthodox patriarchy and introduced a woman minister, as well as arguing in speeches that women were more than wives and mothers – that they were employees and politicians. He challenged an overwhelmingly powerful Wahhabist clergy, granted power by the deals of those who came before him, and brought them slowly to heel, challenging the elements who sponsored Jihadism and slowly allowing a space for dialogue to open. He called for religious moderation in his speeches and broke the clergy's grip on university education by establishing huge endowments for non religious universities. He introduced the first ever elections for municipal councils and granted the Majlis al-Shura more power. He even challenged the corruption in his own family, notably dismissing the famously corrupt Deputy Minsiter of Defence, Khalid bin Sultan, from his post.
Many of these changes are argued to be symbolic; women still cannot drive and are subject to the Guardian system; internal repression is huge; the municipal councils have no real power, and the clergy still holds sway over large sections of the country, administering a frequently brutal version of Shar'ia law. That argument is right. They are symbolic, and little real has changed. But that misses that symbolism is their whole point. Radical change simply will not fit here. 'Abdallah had the strength of character to provide symbols that things can and will change in Saudi Arabia. Saudis discuss politics more than we can imagine; these symbols are fuel for those discussions, spurring them on in hope.
But the changes also bring fear to large sections of the population. What few realise from outside the Kingdom is quite how powerful the retardants on change are from large sections of the Saudi population, and quite how embedded that is in the system. Yes, the al-Sa'ud have taken advantage of this to centralise power in themselves, but large elements of the population, particularly in poorer areas of Riyadh and in the rural areas, are radically conservative and entrenched in religion and distrust of change and innovation. Change cannot come quickly to these constituencies without a huge, likely violent, backlash. We miss that this large constituency dissent against the Al-Sa'ud but from a religious, not political, standpoint. For them, the Al-Sa'ud are not religious enough, too keen to change and adapt to Western ways. The Al-Sa'ud know this, particularly a man who was as tribally connected as 'Abdallah. Along with the maintenance of their own power, that is why change is so often retarded. It will come, but it will be slow and gradual, prompted as much by pragmatism as by ideology.
So, 'Abdallah oversaw a Kingdom of slow change, a brutal one in many ways and, from an external perspective, one of quite staggering oppression, conservatism and sexism. He also oversaw one in which the changes of the last ten years had been the most fundamental and challenging to the system since the rule of the late King Faisal when girls schools, amongst other things, were introduced. He leaves a promise that Saudi will have a different, more promising future, despite the great internal and external challenges it faces.
The new King, Salman, is an elderly half-brother of 'Abdallah, from the powerful Sudayri Seven; a core of brothers in the Al-Sa'ud granted to founding King 'Abd-al-'Aziz by his favoured wife Hessa bint Sudayri. He is also from the same mould as 'Abdallah, another pragmatic gradualist, as is the Crown Prince Muqrin. Neither are moderates in the Western sense. They never will be; the belief in the traditions of their country and family and their interconnection with Wahhabism is too deeply entrenched. But both are men who will continue the gradual change of 'Abdallah and the slow opening to the world. Already Salman has spoken of the two watchwords of the Al-Sa'ud and Saudi Arabia – continuity and stability. Yet he has also taken a radical step in naming his nephew Muhammad bin Na'if as Deputy Crown Prince that was unexpected by Saudi watchers. It is a brave and clever move that solves the vexed question on when the grandsons inherit power and guarantees stability of rule in Saudi Arabia for thirty years.
The pressing challenges in Salman's near future are the external ones; the collapse of Yemen on Saudi's southern border, the rise of ISIL on its northern; the collapse of the oil price (though an estimated $750bn reserve fund will help), and the long Sunni-Shi'a cold war pushed onwards by Saudi and Iran. Internally, the major issues are an economy still entirely over-reliant on oil, a budget deficit of some $30bn a year, a broken, inefficient government bureaucracy and the constant, looming threat of Jihadism. These are challenges enough for any ruler, let alone a frail 79 year old man. 'Abdallah confounded his critics with his ability to rule. I believe Salman will do the same, supported by a capable of coterie of younger princes and a ruling family and country that realises it must unite behind him. As for 'Abdallah himself, once the newsprint has faded, I believe history will judge him kindly. He was a man who changed little, but seemed to change everything; one could never shake the impression that he was a pious, good man seeking to shape his country for a modern future he knew it must embrace. Saudi Arabia will miss him, but the world may too.