Thursday, 21st May 2015

Saudi Arabia: Salman’s absence from summit symbolised generational transition

In the days preceding the US-Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) summit (see page 1), attention focused largely on who would – or rather, would not – be attending. Much was made of the fact that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdelaziz would not be going, sending in his place Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef (MBN) and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). The 10 May announcement came as something of a surprise, since, just two days earlier, White House spokesman Eric Schultz had told reporters travelling on Air Force One that US President Barack Obama and King Salman would have a pre-summit meeting on 13 May.

Salman’s apparent U-turn was interpreted by many as a calculated snub, intended to show Saudi disdain at the US position in the region. This view was reinforced by the decision of Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa to skip the summit too, and instead watch his son at the races in Windsor, UK (see Royals). But the reason for Salman’s absence was likely far more prosaic. The king’s health is known to be frail; GSN’s sources say he is not able to function at a high level for long and is uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations, suggesting a trip to the United States was probably beyond him (GSN notes that on 13 May, the ceremony to mark the foundation of the King Salman Centre for Relief and Humanitarian Works – one of the official reasons given for Salman’s staying at home – took place at the Yamamah Palace, with the king “touch[ing] the electronic screen marking laying the foundation stone” rather than visiting the site itself – see Royals.) Oman’s Sultan Qaboos Bin Said and the UAE’s Sheikha Khalifa Bin Zayed’s non-attendance at the summit can also be attributed to health; Khalifa had a stroke, and Qaboos suspected cancer. And while King Hamad reportedly came under Saudi pressure to send Crown Prince Salman rather than go himself, this may have had as much to do with internal GCC politics as with embarrassing the Americans.

Even if King Salman had attended the summit, it would have fallen to those at his flanks – MBN and MBS – to represent the Al-Saud position. Indeed, the company around the Camp David table may have been a better reflection of where power lies than Obama’s A-list. As such, it neatly symbolised the important transition under way across the Gulf, where the elder royals are gradually –and inevitably – handing power to their younger brothers, nephews, cousins and sons. The regional power base looks very different now to how it looked just two years ago: Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa’s July 2013 abdication (GSN 950/1), Sheikh Khalifa’s January 2014 stroke (GSN 963/1), and King Abdullah’s death in January (GSN 985) mean there are new people effectively in charge of the GCC’s three biggest economies, all of them (if one accepts that MBN and MBS hold most of the power in Riyadh) under the age of 60, and two of them – Emir Tamim Bin Hamad and MBS – still under 35.

Each of the states is at a different stage of transition. In Oman, power still lies with 74-year-old Sultan Qaboos (as demonstrated by the paralysis which descended in his recent absence – GSN 990/1, 988/1, 981/1), but when a successor does eventually emerge, it is likely to be one of three cousins born in the 1950s. In Bahrain, the future of 65-year-old King Hamad (and that of his 45-year-old, more reform-minded, son Salman) depends to a significant extent on whether other Gulf states feel motivated to push for an end to the political-sectarian crisis.

The oldest of the six heads of delegation at Camp David, Kuwait’s 85-year-old Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed, looked very much the odd man out; he is well over a decade older than any other head of delegation (Oman’s Fahd Bin Mahmoud being about 70), and more than two decades older than most. If Crown Prince Nawaf, already 77, goes on to succeed him, Kuwait – already lagging behind many of its Gulf peers – may seem increasingly out of step in a Gulf whose leaders are younger, fresher, and more dynamic than their immediate predecessors. The arrival of the next-generation leaders, still steeped in the traditions and privileges of royalty but with an education and emotional intelligence more closely aligned with those of their Western counterparts, may well be the defining factor in the years to come.

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