Saturday, January 24, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Jan 25, 2015

Change of guard King Abdullah is dead. Long live King Salman. This marks the change of guard in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah, 90, had been ill for some time. The royal ruling family of Saudi Arabia has been careful over the years to settle issues of succession well in advance to prevent any rivalries within the family causing disruption. In that respect, the present transition is as smooth as the planners of the succession may have desired. Not only has the succession of King Salman (aged 79) been seamless, the appointment of his youngest half-brother Prince Muqrin (69) as crown prince and heir apparent and that of his nephew Mohammad bin Nayef (55) as deputy crown prince has ensured that the succession is settled for years to come. Meanwhile the funeral rites of King Abdullah were conducted with simplicity and frugality with no pomp and show as enjoined by the strict Wahabi culture. Although many world leaders descended on Riyadh to pay their respects, Saudi Arabia itself did not declare any official mourning, although many Arab and Muslim countries, including Pakistan, did. While former president Asif Ali Zardari sent condolences, the Sharif brothers arrived in Saudi Arabia to condole the death of the king who was their host when they were exiled by Pervez Musharraf. Even Iran, with whom Saudi Arabia is in conflict over influence in the region, sent its foreign minister. Smooth transition aside, Saudi Arabia’s new monarch faces a sea of troubles. Regional turmoil, with Iran gaining in one neighbouring country, Yemen, through its support to the Shia Houthi insurgents, firmly entrenched in Iraq, but with Islamic State’s rise threatening Saudi Arabia while it gains ground in Iraq and Syria, and plunging oil prices are formidable challenges. Domestically, even the conservative kingdom had to respond to the changing dynamic of its society. King Abdullah was regarded as a cautious reformer. King Salman too, like his predecessor, will have to strike the right balance amongst conservative clerics, tribal power and the aspirations of youth that by now numbers 60 percent of the population and amongst whom women are now in a majority in higher education and many young people have studied abroad. For the moment at least, with an eye to ensuring a peaceful and smooth transition, King Salman has declared that Saudi Arabia’s present course will be maintained, meaning no immediate change in energy or foreign policy. The former implies that the course Saudi Arabia, as the major exporter of oil in the world, has set in the midst of an oil glut globally and its consequent plunging oil prices, will be maintained. This is probably intended to hurt Iran, a cause close to Saudi hearts, as well as Venezuela, which should bring smiles to the faces of its ally the US, embarked as Washington is on a collision course with the Venezuelan Maduro government. This ‘killing two birds with one stone’ may on the one hand underline the continuation of the close alliance with the US, but on the other promises a blowback in the form of a first ever budget deficit for Saudi Arabia itself. It seems that Riyadh has decided the higher strategic purpose far outweighs any short-term economic pain. The new King Salman, crown prince Muqrin and deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Nayef are old hands who have held top important positions and portfolios in the Saudi hierarchy. They are therefore eminently qualified to see the kingdom through the transition phase by adhering to continuity in domestic and foreign policies and ensuring Saudi Arabia continues to enjoy its pre-eminent position in the Arab and Muslim world and the wider region. Unfortunately, this continuity spells trouble for rival Iran, secular left wing regimes like Syria, and even Pakistan if it fails to put its guard up against Saudi funding for madrassas that has fuelled terrorism in our country. Close as the relationship between Islamabad and Riyadh is, this should not be allowed to trump Pakistan’s security in the midst of its anti-terrorism war.

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