World Security Report2015-02-26 06:35:38

G4S Risk Consulting presents their assessment on the recent leadership transition in Saudi Arabia

King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, 79, succeeded his brother Abdullah on 23 January 2015, immediately confirming Muhammad bin Nayaf as Deputy Crown Prince, third in line to the Saudi throne. In an apparent success for the Sudairi grouping of the vast Al Saud royal family, Salman appears to have ended decades of speculation over the transfer of Saudi leadership from Ibn Saud's sons to his grandsons. However, Salman comes to the throne at a time of regional instability: crises in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, the increasing regional influence of Iran and low oil prices as the Saudis seek to maintain their market share. Salman faces stern tests ahead which will provide excellent experience for the grandsons as they prepare to take over the reins of the Kingdom.

Security Outlook

Salman has not yet spelled out his main foreign policy priorities, but in a reshuffle shortly after assuming power he created the CPSA, a new super committee for security and political issues under the control of MbN. Social stability and internal security are the top priorities for Saudi rulers; increasingly pressing demands amid wider regional upheaval. MbN has been a key player in the repression of political dissent in the Kingdom, with little sign that there will be reforms to allow more political and social freedoms. Indeed, he has a reputation for having an intolerant and hardline stance on security matters, making the possibility of political and social reform unlikely. The restive Shi'a population in the Eastern Province will continue to be the focus of internal repression, while female drivers, bloggers and other political activists will also bear the brunt of MbN's continued repressive policies.

Salman is considered to be more socially and religiously conservative than Abdullah. The relatively liberal head of the Religious Police and the Justice Minister have been replaced with more hardline individuals, raising some concern that Abdullah's slow social reforms will be reversed. This does not necessarily indicate a renewed prominence of the religious establishment, whose influence declined under Abdullah, but instead plays into Salman's reputation as a consensus builder. Known liberal Adel al-Teraifi, a former al-Arabiya presenter, has been appointed information minister and has an outlook that is at odds with the clerical establishment. The inclusion of the two ends of the spectrum highlight Salman's desire to have the entire spectrum represented in his government.

Besides the presence of former foreign fighters providing a source of inspiration and battle-hardened individuals, the slick media campaign orchestrated by Islamic State (IS) is proving a vital recruitment tool. Saudi Arabian society is one of the highest users of the internet and it is conceivable that many disillusioned young men are being remotely indoctrinated by the group. AQAP in neighbouring Yemen has also pledged allegiance to the group and remains a credible threat to Saudi interests. Continued reports of al-Qaeda and IS-affiliated group arrests are expected and new legislation targeting potential self-radicalised individuals, including internet activity legislation, is likely to be presented in the coming months as a means to limit public exposure to IS propaganda. Although the threat to the Kingdom posed by the militant groups is a credible one, a successful attack is highly unlikely due to Saudi Arabia's sophisticated intelligence and effective counter-terrorism policies, bolstered by cooperation with the West.

Yemen has long been one of Saudi Arabia's major security concerns and the growing instability there will remain a critical concern under Salman. With Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal remaining in post, continuity of policy is highly likely, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain the Yemen policy strategy due to the complicated web of relationships in the country. Counter-terrorism efforts will remain the top priority. Some economic aid has already been suspended, with further suspensions likely as the Houthis expand their control. Iran is believed to provide some funding to the group and it is therefore out of Saudi Arabia's sphere of influence, with the group unlikely to serve Saudi interests as previous Sana'a regimes have done. The loss of Saudi funds may drive further instability and drive higher cross-border movements, triggering internal security concerns in the Kingdom, likely resulting in increased border force deployments and a crackdown on Yemeni immigrants.

Source: G4S Risk Consulting

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