Saudi Arabia lost King Abdullah today, but already a new king has risen in his stead—his half-brother, Salman—one of seven sons born to his father's favorite wife, legend holds. So what's this golden son's deal?
Who is he?
The 79-year-old was, until Thursday, a crown prince. He's also a member of the "Sudeiri Seven"—seven sons born to King Abdul-Aziz's favorite wife, Hussa bint Ahmad Sudeiri—and is known for keeping the peace within his large family, the AP reports.
The Al Saud family has long sought to keep a united front, papering over any internal disputes to keep the stability of its rule. Salman appears to have played a frequent role in ensuring that unity. The 2007 U.S. Embassy memo said he "is often the referee in family disputes." It pointed to an incident after King Abdullah formalized the Allegiance Council, a body of top royals that is tasked with voting on succession issues based on merit and not just age. Salman's eldest living brother, Abdul-Rahman, was outspoken in his criticism of the arrangement, but Salman bluntly told his brother to "shut up and get back to work," according to the memo.
He's been married three times, but according to reports at least one of those wives died in 2011. Salman's also had some health issues, suffering at least one stroke that's restricted movement in his left arm ever since. And it's been reported many times—including today, in the Washington Post—that he's suffering from dementia.
So who takes over if he can't rule?
No one's really sure. He appointed his half-brother, Muqrin, as the new crown prince and heir, but 69-year-old Muqrin's no spring chicken, either.
In Saudi Arabia, succession passes between the sons of Salman and Abdullah's father, the late King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud. When their generation is exhausted, the title will drop down to pass amongst Abdul-Aziz's grandsons—and there are hundreds of them. And a 35-person council made up of family members will have to choose one. And they've never dropped down to grandsons before—so there's no precedent here at all. So although the family's been known to put aside squabbles in favor of maintaining power, I've seen Game of Thrones and I know how this story goes.
Wait let's get back to King Salman. Does he have any experience in government?
Well, he's been a crown prince and defense minister for three years, and before that, spent fifty years governing the Riyadh province. As governor, he was "reputedly adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal and princely interests that determine Saudi policy, while maintaining good relations with the West," which is a real newspaper quote and not something I copy-pasted from his LinkedIn.
So how will this change things in Saudi Arabia?
King Abdullah had carried out a slow but determined series of reforms aimed at modernizing the country, including increasing education and nudging open the margins of rights for women. Salman appears to have fallen in line with those reforms. But he has also voiced concerns about moving too fast.
In a 2007 meeting, he told an outgoing U.S. ambassador that "social and cultural factors" —even more than religious — mean change has to be introduced slowly and with sensitivity, noting the power of the multiple tribes in the kingdom, according to an embassy memo of the meeting leaked by the Wikileaks whistleblower site.
More importantly, how's this going to change things outside of Saudi Arabia?
As far as anyone can tell, not a lot, at least to start out. Salman's quick ascension was reportedly intended to act as an assurance that politics will continue on as usual. He's "thought likely to continue the main thrusts of Saudi strategic policy," which includes the amiable relationship Abdullah maintained with the United States.
Okay, but tell me one thing. Is he intellectually curious?
Apart from the dementia allegations? You betcha! Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Jordan, "described the new king in an interview earlier this month as 'a very intellectually curious person.'"
"He's also very fond of inquiring of world leaders their opinions of the threats that are out there, the threats to particularly the Middle East," said Jordan, who's now diplomat in residence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
[image via AP]