King Salman’s Year One
RIYADH - When Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud assumed the throne in January 2015, Saudis knew he was a tough taskmaster who would strengthen Saudi Arabia’s leadership position in the region.
Salman had a reputation for toughness and the wisdom to balance his aggressive approach to problem solving. After a year with King Salman as the kingdom’s leader, a new face of Saudi Arabia has emerged. A disproportionate amount of attention has been paid to his foreign policies but his domestic policies, particularly concerning the country’s economic future, have been far more aggressive.
We have seen Salman exhibit little patience with corruption and inequality in the Saudi judicial system. The wealthy, who in the past seemed to live by their own set of rules, appear to be on equal footing with the middle class and the poor when it comes to dispensing justice.
For example, when a rich Jeddawi closed a service road in front of his home so motorists would not pass by his villa, causing massive traffic problems at the same time, he was ordered to reopen the road and pay huge fines. The government intervention sent a message that two levels of Saudi justice were a thing of the past.
Salman is not reluctant to fire ministers who offend the public and he is attuned to the demands of social media. This is a king with 4.4 million followers on Twitter.
Conventional wisdom in early 2015 had Salman rolling back King Abdullah’s progressive programmes. However, not only has he kept those policies in place, he refined them to better serve the country. The King Abdullah Scholarship Programme, for example, has been fine-tuned by setting the academic bar higher when providing scholarships to university students to study abroad and focusing more on specialties such as technology and medicine that will help the country develop better scientists.
Improvements have been made in Saudi domestic law courts, started under Abdullah, that allow Saudi women a measure of equality in divorce and child-custody cases.
A weakness, however, is that non-Saudi children of Saudi mothers are denied Saudi citizenship and do not benefit from inheritance laws and the rights to their mother’s government pensions. Further, Saudi women, while personal empowerment has improved, need laws enacted that provide them protection from male family members who prey on them for their salaries or who sexually or physical assault them.
The king has vowed to wean the country from dependence on oil revenues, implement taxation, privatise some services, including health care and raise the price of petrol, electricity and water. Entitlements will come to an end, pushing Saudi citizens to become more self-sufficient. Harsh, yes, but entirely necessary if Saudi Arabia is to remain economically viable.
Yet it is Salman’s equal measure of experience, foresight and toughness that will serve Saudi Arabia well as the region’s spiritual and foreign policy leader.
Russia has led an incursion into the Ukraine, annexed Crimea and is meddling in Syria. The Islamic State (ISIS) has shed its reputation as a band of gangsters to become a well-armed, well-funded army of occupation in Syria and parts of Iraq. The Iranian-funded Houthi rebels continue their adventures in Yemen.
With the region plunging further into chaos, Salman has shown a side of Saudi Arabia that few of its neighbours, and certainly Western nations, have witnessed.
These developments, borne from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the “Arab spring”, have given urgency to Saudi Arabia’s internal security.
Little is known of Russia’s true intentions or Iran’s endgame, other than the latter wants to create instability in Saudi Arabia or the true origins of the sophisticated weaponry flowing into ISIS’s hands. The picture is not clear but it is at this stage of the political events in the region that a leader must rule by wisdom and power and the need to rule with an iron fist to curb external influences in the kingdom is evident.
It is for these myriad events that the Saudi government’s decision to execute Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on terrorism convictions is widely, and deliberately, misinterpreted.
Saudi Arabia’s critics have framed the execution as the opening salvo to spark a sectarian war and send a message to Iran.
While the argument can be made that the Saudi terrorism laws are too vague and overbroad, there is little doubt that Nimr urged young people to take up arms against security forces and advocated that the Eastern province secede from the kingdom.
His conviction on terrorism charges followed Saudi Arabia’s rule of law, which was applied equally to the other 46 Shia and Sunni extremists executed on similar charges the same day. In the end it was terrorism, not sectarian divide, that sealed the fate of those sentenced to death.
Saudi Arabia feels it can no longer afford to sit idle and wait for other countries to protect the region. The decision to protect the country by striking at Saudi Arabia’s enemies abroad, as in Yemen, is the new power of the kingdom. To many Saudis, Salman is the face of that strength.