Saudi Monarchy

Saudi Arabia: The Lasting Imprint of King Salman

Enthroned in 2015 at the age of 80, King Salman Ibn Abdelaziz has been gradually overshadowed by the rise of his son, Mohamed Ben Salman (MBS), official crown prince and unofficial viceroy since 2017. And yet the father’s legacy has been a major influence on his son’s decisions.

Jeddah, 15 July 2022. King Salman Ibn Abdelaziz Al-Saud during his meeting with US President Joe Biden at Al-Salam Palace

Born in 1935, ailing, discreet by nature, Salman is the twenty-fifth-known son of the founder of the kingdom, Abdelaziz Ibn Saud who died in 1953. He will probably be the last of his generation to occupy the throne. Before becoming king, he was one of the most influential members of the dynasty, in the Al-Saud family, the State apparatus and the cultural life of the Kingdom. Salman’s legacy is so powerful that the reign of his son, Mohamed Ben Salman (MBS), has been pretty much laid out in advance.

Salman still serves to attest to his son’s respectability in the eyes of the clergy, just as he served as lightning conductor when MBS suggested that he was not going to prioritise the great pan-Arab causes (such as opposition to Israel). Though he may appear to have broken with the traditions of the dynasty, MBS is pursuing a strategy which bears a remarkable resemblance to his father’s. The reform packages initiated by father and son together in 2015 were less a revolution than an acceleration, made necessary by a conjuncture which was especially perilous for the royal family in general, and for its Salman lineage. In 2011, the wave of the Arab Spring reached a country weakened by the cooling of relations with Barack Obama’s administration followed by the drop in oil prices after 2014. In addition to which, the changes in the line of succession imposed by Salman in 2015 angered a part of the royal family, and not only the last sons of Ibn Saud and Salman’s half-brothers who might have laid claim to the throne.

Distrust of independent reform movements

Since 2017 and the sidelining of his last rivals and outright opponents in the royal family, MBS has become the de facto viceroy. This role was made official in September 2022 when the function of head of the Council of Ministers (ra’is al-wuzara’), filled by the King himself since the rule of Faysal, was assigned to MBS. The conflicts between the low-profile King Salman and his media-friendly son, dramatised though they were during certain episodes of domestic or diplomatic tension, made it easier to push through policies on which both men actually agreed.

Father and son share a touchy nationalism and a deep distrust of any independent reform movement as the Wahhabi clerics, their opposite numbers among the Shi’ites, and the founders of the feminist movement discovered to their sorrow. While both father and son are eager to earn recognition abroad, their education took place exclusively on their home ground, unlike their counterparts around the Gulf; the father in the princes’ school in the Murabba Palace (Riyadh), the son at the King Saud University (also in Riyadh) where he obtained a law degree before going to work in the Riyadh governorate and the Royal Cabinet. They both were in charge of the crucial Defence Ministry as a preparation for their role as Crown Prince, tightening the hierarchy of the royal family around its most loyal members with what was often a brutal authoritarianism and making Riyadh the laboratory and show window of their rule.

Within the patrimonial government1, institutionalised as such starting with the reigns of the founder of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud (1880–1953, ruled 1932–1953) and his son Faysal (1906–1975; ruled 1964–1975), the equilibrium between the branches founded by the founding king’s sons was based on the division of the Kingdom’s administration into jealously guarded monopolies. Very few administrative organs were not subject to this fiefdom partitioning. Faysal and his sons controlled the Foreign Ministry, the Defence went to Sultan (1928–2011) and his sons while Nayef (1934–2012) and his sons took the Ministry of Interior Affairs. Before overturning this system when he rose to royalty status and taking in hand the whole of the State apparatus, Emir Salman had his share: the province of Riyadh.

Making Riyadh a show window

It was as provincial governor of the capital since 1963 that he gradually carved out for himself a role of unofficial and irremovable ‘viceroy’, while his brothers and half-brothers were succeeding one another on the throne. Salman initiated the first plans to develop the city at the end of the sixties, reshaping urban planning to meet the requirements of a fast-growing Riyadh and counter the first social and political challenges emerging in the new suburbs. Paradoxically for a prince who already claimed to be passionate about history, his urban development began with the destruction of the historic neighbourhoods, except for Al-Mak fortress, that untouchable vestige of the conquest of Riyadh in 1902 by Ibn Saud. This development had the advantage of filling the coffers of the land – and building – owners who benefited from the many construction and public works contracts managed by the governorate. It enabled Salman to become not only the indispensable interlocutor of all visiting chiefs of state and foreign dignitaries but also the meticulous overseer of the life of the royal family, the rumours and exchanges between the capital’s institutions.

Thus, the Prince of Riyadh played the role of a facilitator and chief arbitrator of family disputes. On the Family Council (Majlis Al-Usra) established under King Fahd (r. 1982-2005) or the Council of Allegiance, established by King Abdallah (r. 2005-2015) to settle the thorny questions of succession to the throne, Salman’s vote was decisive, or so rumour had it, in the absence of any established fact. His intimacy with his brother King Fahd earned the Emir unfailing financial and political support, at least until Fahd’s stroke in 1995 which made Prince Abdullah, Salman’s half-brother, de facto regent of the realm.

A new pact with the elites

The shock of the Gulf War (1990–1991) drove Emir Salman to reconsider for the first time the political dimension of his management of Riyadh, turning it into a laboratory for a new pact with the kingdom’s economic elites. A serious challenge to the dynasty’s legitimacy coincided with the war and with the economic recession in the oil-producing countries. In 1995–1996, a series of terrorist attacks finally convinced all the members of the dynasty to support and extend the emir’s new strategy. As regent and then as King, Abdallah himself ultimately adhered to the orientations which his half-brother Salman had been advocating from Riyadh Province. After its enthusiastic reception across the Kingdom, the policy of national dialogue inaugurated by King Abdallah in response to the threat of domestic and foreign terrorism, was itself ultimately contaminated in the first decade of the new century by a conservatism aimed at preserving the dynasty and came to a standstill.

New development plans were elaborated for the capital with a massive arrival of foreign consultants and urbanists. These were overseen by a brace of institutions (the King Abdelaziz Foundation and the Ryadh Development Authority) which made it possible to circumvent the normally implicated ministries and were placed under the direct control of the governor-prince and his closest councillors. The use of these hegemonic agencies and commissions, superimposed over administrations deemed too slow or of doubtful loyalty, was resumed in 2015 when MBS took over the brand-new Council of Economic and Development Affairs and described his ‘Vision 2030’ plan, then again in 2017 when he replaced his uncle Mohammad Bin Nayef at the head of the Council of Political and Security Affairs.

Repositioning history

In Riyadh and in Mecca, the heavy construction works, resumed in the nineties, made available all sorts of contracts which were very welcome in a period when the future of oil was so uncertain and when recession threatened. They tightened the relations between the dynasty and the economic elites most loyal to the ruling branch at the expense of other family groups fallen into disgrace. They made it possible to popularise a new national narrative, elaborated by Prince Salman’s councillors and by an impressive array of consultancy firms, specialising in issues of development, tourism and archaeology. Little by little, the Wahhabi role in the history of the Saudi Emirates was toned down in order to discredit the (salwa islamiyya (the ‘religious awakening’ responsible for the surge of Islamist movements since the sixties) and to reposition the official narrative around the Saudi dynasty alone.

This historical repositioning went hand in glove with bringing the clerics to heel, including the descendants of Mohamed Ibn Abdalwahhab2 himself, taking over the institutions which they controlled (such as the morality police or the ministries of education and justice). Salman’s accession to the throne in 2015 and his son’s becoming deputy crown prince was merely another stage in the process of sidelining, at times quite brutally, the most critical members of the Saudi clergy. The introduction in 2022 of a ‘foundation day’, making the creation of the first Saudi Emirate date from 1727, when Mohammad Ibn Saud became ruler of the Dir’iyya Oasis, rather than the previously traditional date of 1744-45 (when a pact was signed between Ibn Saud and the predicator Mohammad Ibn Abdelwahhab), is the result of this historic transformation.

Salman’s reputation as ‘prince of scholars’ (amir al-udaba’) and ‘of historians’ was already well established when he became king. His often directly personal patronage of Riyadh’s cultural institutions (King Abdulaziz Foundation, King Fahd National Library, Riyadh Development Commission and Dir’ryya Development Commission) is not only responsible for the many posters portraying him and the praise heaped upon his person at every inauguration of a museum or library, at each symposium opening. It has also made Salman the informal overseer of the history of the Saud dynasty and thus, more generally of the country’s national narrative. It is he who legitimises the policy of vast construction works which is constantly transforming the capital city.

Thus, the Medstar Plan (Metropolitan Strategy for Al-Riyadh) was made public in 1996 at the same time as preparations began for the centenary celebration of the Saudi conquest of Riyadh in 1902, still regarded as the Kingdom’s founding episode. The construction of public institutions and restoration of muniments were speeded up in view of these celebrations, which began in 1999. And finally, Salman’s reputation as a scholar, still widely publicised, has conveniently counterbalanced since 2015 the Kingdom’s aggressive foreign policy, most particularly in Yemen. In addition to the many university research chairs already created throughout the Kingdom under the aegis of Emir Salman, a King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre has been set up to aid in Syria and, above all, in Yemen.

The son has inherited the father’s paradoxes just as the Kingdom has inherited the policies shaped in Riyadh. However repressive the policies towards the clerics, these remain conservative nonetheless. The advocacy of a form of secularisation of culture and individual behaviour remains the monopoly of a single branch of the dynasty (MBS, his brothers and half-brothers) who establish its profile and pace of application. The much-publicised adoption of neo-liberal principles to stimulate the country’s economic growth has not prevented brutal calls to order in the name of the overriding interests of the State. Salman, son of Abdelaziz, won’t have had much time or latitude to be King. Nonetheless his legacy, in Riyadh, in the royal family and across the kingdom has had sufficient weight to blaze a wide trail for his son Mohamed.

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Patrimonialism is a form of governance in which all power flows directly from the ruler. There is no distinction between the public and private domains. (Wikipedia)

21703–1792, one of the founders of the Kingdom.