In his two years on the throne, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has been an innovative leader who has addressed some of Saudi Arabia's most pressing concerns. His foreign policy is more confrontational toward Iran than any of his predecessors. His signature policy is the war in Yemen, which has not been a success.
Salman just celebrated his ascension as measured by the Islamic calendar. The Saudi leader has been touted as a "paradigm shift" in the management of the country. Perhaps his most significant decision was to advance change in the succession process and turn to a younger generation of royals to lead it. At the age of 81, the king has focused on the choice of his successor from his first day in office.
Salman appointed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to be deputy crown prince shortly after gaining the crown and then deposed his half-brother Prince Muqrin two months later, elevating Nayef, 57, to be crown prince. If Nayef does ascend to the throne he will be the first Saudi monarch who is not a son of the modern kingdom's founder King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who died in 1953. It will be a generational change in leadership.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is unquestionably the most qualified prince of his generation. He has been at the front of the kingdom's war against terrorism for over a decade. He has survived four assassination attempts by al-Qaeda. He has developed extensive contacts with security chiefs and services around the world. As crown prince, he has the opportunity to broaden his experience and competence.
The king's son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, has developed a creative plan to transform the kingdom by 2030. Salman has placed unprecedented powers in his son's hands, including command of the economy. The son's Saudi Vision 2030 recognizes that the Saudi welfare state is unsustainable with low oil prices. Much of the program remains to be implemented, but it is crucial that the kingdom recognize the imperative of change. This year, 2017, is the one where the vision needs to be fleshed out and implemented in its initial stages.
The king followed through on the promise of his predecessor King Abdullah to allow Saudi women to vote and run for office in the country's municipal councils. It is an important symbolic step for the monarchy. Harder decisions about women's rights will be crucial if Saudi Vision 2030 is to work.
Abdullah's foreign policy was risk averse and cautious. During the Arab Spring, the kingdom became the leader of counter-revolution in Bahrain and Egypt. In Yemen it sought to replace Ali Abdullah Saleh with a compliant regime that would accept Saudi dominance. In Syria the kingdom saw an opportunity to unseat Iran's oldest ally in the Arab world.
Salman has been much more aggressive and confrontational than his brother. Relations with Iran have been severed, preventing Iranians from attending the hajj. A 40-member Islamic military alliance (led by the Saudi defense minister) has been created, excluding Iran and Iraq. Last month Oman, which has long sought to cool tensions in the Gulf, officially joined the Saudi military alliance. An aggressive intelligence campaign has been launched against Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah. Money has been sent to the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi relations with Washington deteriorated on Abdullah's watch. Riyadh was appalled that US President Barack Obama urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to give up office. American pressure on Bahrain's Sunni monarchy to accommodate the Shiite majority's demands for change prompted Abdullah to send troops across the King Fahd causeway to support the Sunnis and repress the Shiites. Almost six years later they are still there.
Salman shared his predecessor's skepticism about Obama. He snubbed an invitation to Washington. The kingdom has been quietly critical of the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions on Tehran. Nonetheless the Obama administration has sold over $110 billion in arms to the Saudis in eight years.
Only two months after ascending to the throne, Salman intervened in Yemen in response to the takeover of the capital by loyalists of Saleh and the Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels. Riyadh feared that the Iranians were on the verge of creating a satellite state on their southern border. A Saudi-led coalition has blockaded Yemen and installed a friendly government in Aden.
Two years later, a Yemeni child starves to death every 10 minutes, according to UNICEF. Millions of Yemenis are malnourished and without medical care. All the warring parties bear blame for this humanitarian catastrophe. But the reality is that the richest countries in the Arab world have attacked the poorest country in the Arab world. The international community has done virtually nothing to stop the carnage. The United States and United Kingdom have provided the aircraft, munitions, logistics and intelligence that facilitate the war. The Saudis have been given the assistance essential to waging war with only occasional constraints, which are mostly due to congressional pressure and outrage.
Salman needs to find an honorable end to the war. Saudi Vision 2030 is likely to be a mirage if the kingdom remains bogged down in a quagmire in Yemen. The king is planning a visit to Oman this year. Omani Sultan Qabos can be a credible intermediary between the warring Yemeni parties. It's time to end the bloodshed.
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