The death of King Abdullah in late January 2015 brought a seamless transition of power in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Salman acceded to the throne and Prince Muqrin became crown prince, while Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, minister of the interior, became second deputy prime minister and the first grandson of Ibn Saud in line for the throne. Despite speculation to contrary, the smooth transition was strong evidence of a preexisting agreement that included the late king, Salman, and other senior princes. The speed with which King Salman confirmed top-level positions and put his own set of ministers and advisors in place also appears to contradict earlier conjecture that age and poor health would relegate him to a transitional role.

The new king had apparently given considerable thought to his accession. Outside explanations for his decisive actions varied. Some analysts inferred a Sudairi clan power play while others saw an attempt by Salman to advance the interests of his immediate family. The reality, much more complex, is tied to King Salman’s record as an agent for change in a potentially fractious royal family and highly conservative political, economic, and social environment.

For five decades, King Salman served as governor of Riyadh Province. He oversaw the transition of an ultra-conservative, mid-sized Nejdi town to a modern twenty-first century metropolis of over seven million people. Salman’s efforts in Riyadh succeeded while other Saudi cities, such as Jeddah, faltered in their development, and Riyadh’s modernization was said to serve as a model for the Kingdom.

As governor, Salman gained valuable perspective on the royal family, the clerical establishment, and the dynamics of traditional Nejdi society. He played an indispensible role in maintaining family unity, became an expert at consensus building, and learned how to navigate sensitive tribal and religious issues.

A pragmatist, Salman represented the “middle generation” that worked to bridge differences between older and younger leaders. He maintained good ties with religious conservatives (including the mutawwa, or religious police, whom he supports), intellectuals from various political persuasions, and progressive elements. In the process, he acquired a reputation for honesty and for having strong convictions about what constitutes corruption in a society based on patronage. His role as the family mediator and disciplinarian gave him an intimate understanding of Al Saud family dynamics.[1]

Thus when King Salman came to the throne, he was able to draw on 50 years of experience balancing respect for traditional values with the pursuit of modernity. Having modernized Riyadh, which represents almost one third of the country’s population, it is logical that he would apply similar strategies in his attempt to transform the entire Kingdom. Salman knows that political, economic, and social change are inevitable but must be closely managed.[2]


Already there are signs that King Salman is applying the Riyadh model to the Kingdom as a whole—in both practical and ideological ways. As governor, he established the Riyadh Development Authority, in which all of the province’s departments and ministries were represented.[3] The Authority streamlined and modernized the workings of the provincial government, creating a more efficient system. Now, on the national level, he has moved rapidly to streamline government policy formulation and decision making. Ten days into his reign, Salman disbanded 14 royal councils that bore responsibility for different aspects of Saudi governance, replacing the unwieldy structure with just two bodies: the Council of Political and Security Affairs, headed by Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (the minister of interior and second in line for the throne), and the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, headed by his son, Prince Muhammad bin Salman (the new minister of defense and head of the royal court).[4]

This consolidation, coupled with the advancement of trusted younger leaders, gives the new king the control necessary to pursue his agenda. Salman’s restructuring is therefore as much about making government processes more efficient as it is about choosing specific personalities. Many of the new faces in the government come from the businesses, media organizations, and Islamic charities that either Salman or his sons controlled during his governorship.


Developing an alternative to the rentier oil economy is a priority, as is the opening of the Saudi stock market to foreign investment. During his tenure in Riyadh and as crown prince, Salman encouraged private sector economic growth and the creation of industrial and commercial zones to diversify the economy.[5] An integral part of development will also be to protect the economic base through oil policies designed to increase market share and provide leverage vis-à-vis friends and foes alike. Current policies challenge Iran, Russia, and the Kingdom’s fracking competition in the United States, and will likely continue into the foreseeable future. Economic rationalization will be challenging, but massive financial reserves of over $750 billion will provide time and a buffer for experimentation—the huge bonuses paid out to the citizenry during the “Arab Spring” and upon Salman’s accession to the throne are just one example. 


Economic transformation and development requires social change. Salman sees education as the fundamental building block for development, which explains his consolidation of the responsibility for education into one ministry. While governor, Salman had close ties with the business community, which for decades has bemoaned the inability of the Saudi educational system to produce employable citizens.[6] Revitalizing the education system in Saudi Arabia has also long been a governmental priority, but nothing seems to change. Some argue that the problem is curricula, while others point to the quality of the teachers. King Salman appointed Azzam bin Mohammed al-Dakheel, a U.S.-educated administrator from one his family charities, to focus on private attempts to improve educational opportunities.[7] This could herald profound social change over the long term. Further, women are an increasing majority in universities, and employment figures show that the Kingdom is underutilizing this valuable human resource. The king understands the negative social and economic effects caused by gender restrictions such as the driving ban, but he also understands that change must be deliberate so as not to create a rallying point for radical Islamists who oppose the regime.

Managed social change thus requires the cooption or control of the religious establishment. The Kingdom has therefore increasingly focused on establishing religious norms that are compatible with development goals.[8] These efforts have security implications as well; for example, Saudi clerics have labeled ISIS’s religious practice un-Islamic, calling ISIS members Kharijites. In condemning ISIS and warning against its false teachings, the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, recently called for better Islamic education and more economic opportunities for Saudi youth as a buffer against “deviant ideas.”[9] Both messages are consistent with the thrust of King Salman’s policies: a call for religious standards and jobs. Salman has already removed the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Public Virtue, who was from the Wahhabi al-Sheikh family, and replaced him with Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Sanad, who was publicly encouraged by the king’s son to moderate the conduct of the religious police.[10] Sanad is known for his view that extremist interpretations of the Qur’an are promulgated by “preachers of evil,” and, like the Grand Mufti, has call for improved Islamic educational standards.[11]

Security and Defense 

King Salman was the close confidant of his older full brother, Prince Sultan, the longtime minister of defense, and as governor he was deeply involved in security issues. For these reasons, King Abdullah selected Salman as minister of defense in 2011. Today, Salman is restructuring his security team to streamline the national security policy process and consolidate his control. Continuing the approach he learned as governor and minister, he has rid his staff of people tainted by missteps, including high-profile close relatives, and has replaced them with people whom he views as both competent and trustworthy.  In 2013, while minister of defense, Salman removed his deputy, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, and on coming to the throne, he fired Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the National Security Council and a former ambassador to Washington. Both Khalid and Bandar had been criticized regarding their handling of Yemen and Syria, and both had been accused of corruption.

Under King Salman, Saudi security and foreign policy promises to be better coordinated and more focused on Saudi interests—and potentially several moves ahead of U.S. policy in the region. Salman recently called for the “Sunni League” to oppose ISIS and Iran; this indicates that while the United States is focusing tactically on ISIS, the Saudi king is already thinking ahead, anticipating the day when the ISIS threat recedes and Iran and its proxies once again become the primary focus of Saudi and Arab Gulf security policy.[12]

Close security and defense cooperation with Western powers will continue under the new king, but the Kingdom will likely be more aggressive in asserting its own views and pursuing its own interests than in the past. Following the sharp differences between Riyadh and Washington over U.S. policy toward the Assad regime in Syria, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal—who has retained his position under King Salman—pointedly stated, “A true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor, and frankness rather than mere courtesy. Within this perspective, it’s only natural that our policies and views might see agreement in some areas and disagreement in others.”[13]


King Salman will no doubt meet current political and economic challenges with a measured, conservative approach. However, his record as governor suggests that over the long term he is attempting to create an institutional framework for managing modernization and change. While it remains to be seen whether the governance strategies that helped to transform Riyadh can be successfully applied to the Kingdom as a whole, Salman has the knowledge, administrative experience, work ethic, and stature that makes it possible. Perhaps more importantly, he knows from his years in Riyadh that controlled, conservative experimentation is key, as change is a process, not a static goal. Some policies will work better than others, and some will fail; success will have to be judged in aggregate. The most important question is the king’s health. To institutionalize his approach to change, Salman needs three to five years of hands-on governance. Should that not happen, then it will fall to Prince Muqrin, assuming he continues in his role as crown prince, or Muhammad bin Nayef, Muhammad bin Salman, and the grandsons to solidify the changes—a more difficult task.

[1] Basheer al-Baker, “Prince Salman Seeks Balance in Saudi Transitional Period,” Al Akhbar English, November 3, 2011, .

[2] It must be said that in the West, discussions of Saudi Arabia often focus on security policy and something usually described as reform. Security policy has its own subtleties, but the issue of change, when described as “reform,” carries with it a Western-centric prejudice that blurs an accurate understanding of what actually happens. The West generally does not understand that contemporary Western mutations of eighteenth-century ideas about universal rights are not universal; in fact, Saudi Arabia possesses its own version—rooted in the eighteenth century—of what a just society looks like. There is thus a difference between societal change and Western concepts of reform; the issue is embracing change and modernity within the context of the political, economic, and social milieu of the contemporary Kingdom rather than blindly adopting Western norms or concepts of reform. King Salman has made it clear that he understands the difference and will act accordingly. Rose Troup Buchanan, “King Abdullah Dead: Who is King Salman?” The Independent, January 23, 2015, .

[3] Neil Farquhar, “Defense Minister and New Heir to the Throne in Saudi Arabia,” The New York Times, June 18, 2012, .

[4] “How Will the New King Salman Change Saudi Arabia?” BBC News, February 10, 2015, .

[5] Omar al-Mahboub, “How Will the New Saudi King Handle the Economy?” Al-Monitor, January 29, 2015, .

[6] Abeer Allam, “Saudi Educational Reforms Face Resistance,” Financial Times, April 25, 2011, .

[7] Joseph Kechichian, “New Saudi Ministers Will Not Curb Reforms,” Gulf News, February 5, 2015,  .

[8] “Converting the Preachers: The State and Islam,” The Economist, December 13, 2014, 52.

[9] “Grand Mufti: IS in Direct Violation of Islamic Principles,” Arab News, March 10, 2015,  .

[10] P.K. Abdul Ghafour, “New Chief Told to Reform Haia,” Arab News, February 23, 2015, .

[11] Kechichian, “New Saudi Ministers Will Not Curb Reforms.”  See also Roby C. Barrett, “Islam: Ideology and Conflict,” Joint Special Operations University, JSOU Report 14-8, December 2014, 49-70. This is a concise discussion of the pros and cons related to a lack of clear religious authority in Sunni Islam as compared to Shi‘i Islam.  King Salman is attempting to gain more control by establishing religious orthodoxy to counter radicals and lay preachers.

[12] Aarti Nagraj, “Saudi King Aims for New Sunni Bloc vs. Iran and Islamic State,” Hiiraan Online, March 8, 2015,  .

[13] John Kerry and Prince Saud al-Faisal, “Remarks with the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal,” U.S. Department of State – Diplomacy in Action, November 4, 2013, .