Heralded by world leaders as a reformer and moderate, the king of the Wahhabi state passed away in Riyadh after a three-week battle with pneumonia.
It is certainly no simple time to be a part of the twelve-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), especially if you are Saudi Arabia, the group’s leading exporter of oil.
So what happens, then, when the long serving monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, dies in the middle of a plunge in world oil prices? In a word, nothing. The transition to a new monarch indicates nothing other than stability and more of the same.
There was initial speculation that such a transition would usher in liberal reform given the late King’s status as a ‘moderate’ reformer. This may have been a fair expectation if King Abdullah had been a reformer in the first place.
Saudi Arabia is the financial and religious home of Wahhabism, the ultraconservative and puritanical strain of Sunni Islam that has given rise to al- Qaeda and groups like the Islamic State.
While world leaders like Barack Obama, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the late king as a modernizer and a liberal reformer, Saudi activist Hala Aldosari says King Abdullah was anything but.
“The legacy that King Abdullah leaves behind is one of neither regional peace nor domestic progress. And while modest social reforms may have been achieved … the monarchy remains in bed with a repressive religious establishment and continues to crack down on any type of dissent,” said Aldosari.
Human rights are nonexistent in Saudi Arabia and even four of Abdullah’s 15 daughters have been under house arrest for the past 14 years for daring to criticise the government.
Raif Badawi, who started the blog Saudi Free Liberals Forum, was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. He received the first 50 on Jan. 9.
At a U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus on June 4, 2002, Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, said “Saudi Arabia is a glaring example of religious apartheid”.
“The religious institutions from government clerics to judges, to religious curricula, and all religious instructions in media are restricted to the Wahhabi understanding of Islam, adhered to by less than 40% of the population.”
“Wahhabi Islam is imposed and enforced on all Saudis regardless of their religious orientations. The Wahhabi sect does not tolerate other religious or ideological beliefs, Muslim or not,” said Ali Al-Ahmed.
Now that King Salman occupies the throne, it is evident already that the House of Saud is as strong and solidified in its rule as it ever was.
At 79-years-old, King Salman has been reported to still be in good health and with a remarkably sharp mind. The king has shuffled his cabinet and placed his closest relatives, included his eldest son, in top positions.
It is entirely unrealistic to assume that someone who was so integral to the previous administration, who themselves is unlikely to reign for longer than a decade, will be a boundary pusher in terms of revitalization and reform.
However, with a new monarch also comes the appointment of a new heir, and in this case, a Crown Prince.
Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the eldest brother of the new King, is viewed by many within the family to be more liberal in terms of ideology and understanding of the need for greater social reforms going forward.
With the weight that the new Crown Prince will carry within the administration, it should not be discounted that the calls for reform will continue from outside the government and perhaps from within.
While it may be another decade before Crown Prince Muqrin takes the throne, the fantasy that Saudi Arabia will suddenly become a liberal democracy because the House of Saud has a new king is just that.
All Prince Muqrin represents is a glimmer of hope. With no history of corruption, he carries a tremendous amount of respect within the family and from the public at large. If Saudi Arabia has any chance at reform through a transition mired by the status quo, it will be from Crown Prince Muqrin.