Saudi Arabia’s new ruler King Salman started his reign by a cabinet shuffle. The sons of the late monarch lost their positions and other high ranking officials have been replaced. What will determine the country’s course in its internal and external policy? Should we expect major change?
Agree or Disagree discusses the topic with Gilbert Mercier, a journalist and editor-in-chief of News Junkie Post and Saeed Naqvi, a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
Does the new ruler mean new future for the country?
Saeed Naqvi: Everybody knows that he is physically in good health, but mentally he may not be. He may be afflicted by early or medium stages of Alzheimer's. These sorts of statements should not be made, but they have been made in the media. And since the Saudi monarchy is very secretive, I suppose, if they don’t tell us, we’ll have to rely on those who are better informed. So, the King has that problem. Therefore, we have to bank on the two other people, the one who he has nominated and the other was there – the Crown Prince and the Deputy Crown Prince.
Gilbert Mercier: One of his first moves was to issue a decree to name one of his nephews as the Deputy Crown Prince. So, it gives some sing that the second generation is actually going to start ruling the country.
Judging by the firsts steps of King Salman, what sort of message was he trying to send here?
Saeed Naqvi: You are looking at a situation where the new King is basically grouping his way. We are looking at the scenario that King Abdullah has left behind. He left the fundamental Saudi-Iran faultline. The other faultline he enunciated was the Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood faultline. No one has yet been able to tell anybody whether it is the Shia-Sunni faultline which is more pronounced, or it is the MB and the Wahhabi faultline which is more pronounced. If it is the MB which is the big threat, then King Abdullah left another legacy, which is the Riyadh-Ankara conflict. And Egypt, Gaza, Qatar, Jordan – they all host Brothers Muslims.
Gilbert Mercier: I want to add that the MB has had the backing of Qatar in the region. I have a feeling that Saudi Arabia has been actually weak for several years. There are two reasons. The main one is the fact that they are the most powerful representatives of OPEC and they have allowed the drop of oil prices by more than 50% since August 2014.
Shortly after King Salman acceded to the throne President Obama came to the country with the visit, and he had to cut short his visit to India. How was this seen in India?
Saeed Naqvi: 28th of January was the day when the Indian republican constitution was adopted. That is a very important day and Obama was the chief guest. After that there were bilateral talks with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after which he and Michelle were supposed to go to Agra to see Taj Mahal. That particular day was deleted. I don’t think it reflected very much here. I think here the people are very happy with how the visit went.
Obama on the number of occasions said that Saudi Arabia is one of the key allies of the US in the region. It is interesting that human rights card is sometimes used by the West against some countries and it is conveniently forgotten when it comes to the protection of the US interests. Why do you think the issue of human rights is overlooked here?
Gilbert Mercier: The US has an interesting double standard in terms of human rights. They are critical of countries that don’t serve their geopolitical interests. Michelle Obama came to the funeral with her husband not wearing any kind of covering on her hair, which in terms of protocol is a grave insult to the royal family. It shows that there definitely is an ill relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, a shift that makes me think that Saudi Arabia is getting a lot weaker in its relationship with the US.
If this is the case, then the Western countries will be pushing it for more reforms and for more change.
Gilbert Mercier: They’ll have to, because there is also a demographic issue which nobody talks about. Out of 27 million in Saudi Arabia, I believe half of them are actually younger than 25 years old. So, there is a huge demographic push. And Saudi Arabia has a generational problem – it’s been ruled by elderly men for a very-very long time. So, there is a lot of push, both internal and external, with the instability in the region and they will not be able to shelter themselves from it. And I do think that the jihadists that they partially sponsor and train will eventually come back to Saudi Arabia.
Saeed Naqvi: As our colleague form California said, Michelle goes there without wearing a scarf. What is the signal? The signal is that we are going to treat you on our terms. This means that the Saudi-Washington equation is weakening. But there is another equation – the Saudi-Israeli relations. They have become great comrades and supporters of each other, because their interests are similar at this point. The Saudis and the Israelis have got in a trap at the moment with the US, which is torn between the White House and the Congress.
Are we likely to see then some internal changes in the country that will lead to the improvement of the situation with human rights, women’s rights and other things?
Gilbert Mercier: The change, if any, can be of two kinds. It is either going to be a slow reform, or it is going to come on a turmoil. The change could happen through a reform and there might be a desire of reforms from the second generation, but it is not going to be major, because it is an authoritarian system and they need to keep a lid on things.
What role does Saudi Arabia play in countering terrorism?
Saeed Naqvi: The terrorism that we are coping with is started in Saudi Arabia. I'm not suggesting that the Saudi state sponsors terrorism, but there is something about that state, about the private enterprises there, about the Wahhabi sect in that country, that it turns out that most of the suicide bombers have some trace to them.
Gilbert Mercier: Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis have been sponsoring jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists for decades. They did it with al-Nusra in Syria, they did it with ISIL at the start and now they have lost control of ISIL.
Do you agree that ISIL presents a threat to Saudis themselves?
Gilbert Mercier: Absolutely! What ISIL wants ultimately is Mecca. That’s where they are going to down the line. That is the jewel at the crown of caliphate for them.
What will it take to normalize the situation?
Saeed Naqvi: The main thing here is that the West and the Americans are trying to seal a deal with the Iranians, which the Israelis do not want. And since the Israelis do not want, they put pressure on the Saudis, because they have got problems all around them. And the only way that the Saudis can solve their problems is to have the US Congress standing behind them. This is the game that is going on.