It is natural that Western media outlets and researchers have been abuzz with outpourings of analyses, studies and conclusions about the direction Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policy will take after King Salman Bin Abdulaziz ascended to the throne after the death of his brother, King Abdullah. The same happened when the late King Abdullah succeeded his brother King Fahd.
This time, however, the succession has received widespread media coverage, with many attempts to analyze the scene and read between the lines. This greater global attention is not surprising, due to the regional and international circumstances, which add to the significance of the Kingdom, and the gravity of the challenges it faces.
The Kingdom’s added international stature stems from its recent membership of the G20, an international forum for the major 20 economies. Its recent summit in Australia was attended by King Salman at the head of the Saudi delegation. Another reason that lends Saudi Arabia added significance is its pivotal role in the world’s energy markets.
The same applies to politics. The importance of Saudi Arabia’s political role has increased in light of the region’s deteriorating conditions and the blight of terrorism represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which poses a grave risk to the region and beyond. For the first time, a terrorist organization controls national territories, resources and populations, while calling itself a state and seeking to extend its influence by exploiting the chaos and power vacuum in the region.
Most of the European and American newspapers that covered the Saudi succession over the past few days have praised Riyadh’s ability to maintain stability in a region swept up by the wave of instability and chaos that followed what was initially dubbed the Arab Spring. The view began to shift when the upheaval led to the collapse and disintegration of states and the rise of militias and powers that sought to replace the state, with revolutions turning into bloody internal wars, as was the case in Syria and Libya, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced.
Although the Arab Spring turned into a violent hurricane in several Arab countries, there was no justification for it to spread to the Gulf. A major factor in the unrest that led to the Arab Spring was economic stagnation, and the economic conditions in the Gulf are so different that they do not justify the eruption of a similar uprising there. At the same time, the tribal make-up of the societies of the Gulf states, and their hereditary political systems, do not allow for the kind of practices that led to the grievances witnessed in Syria, for instance. This is not to mention that the process of modernization and opening up to the rest of the world is underway, though of course at a pace in keeping with Gulf society’s ability to cope with change.
This leads us to the process of modernization and reform which is taking place at a varying pace, depending on the status quo and available resources. But in general there have been clear indications of a constant tendency towards domestic reform by all the monarchs who have ruled Saudi Arabia since the 1970s.
At the start of King Abdullah’s reign, the Western media had the impression that as a monarch he would be very conservative. The idea soon vanished when he courageously launched the Arab Peace Initiative and fought a relentless war against terrorism, and held national and interfaith dialogues to eliminate boundaries between civilizations.
One of King Abdullah’s most important achievements by far has been investment in people through paying a great deal of attention to education and introducing a scholarship program that has sent tens of thousands of Saudi students abroad. It was a joy to re-read Asharq Al-Awsat’s interview with King Abdullah in 2006, in which he said he was busy making what he referred to as a “revolution in education” in Saudi Arabia.
A logical reading of the Saudi scene suggests that rule in the Kingdom is based on state institutions which guarantees an additional margin of reform and modernization for successors to the throne, thanks to the foundations laid by their predecessors.