For The Saudis, A Smooth Succession At A Difficult Moment

Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who assumed the throne on Friday, is shown at the G20 conference in Brisbane, Australia, on Nov. 15, 2014, when he was the crown prince. His succession went smoothly, but the new monarch faces a region in turmoil. (AP)

For the sixth time since Saudi Arabia's founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, died in 1953, one of his sons has ascended to the throne, and it took place Friday without a hitch.

When King Abdullah died early Friday at age 90, his half-brother, Salman, was named the new monarch within an hour. There's also a new crown prince, Muqrin, who is the youngest surviving son of Abdulaziz and a relative youngster at 69.

The new King Salman quickly sent a message of stability and continuity. But the death of a Saudi monarch has brought the problems facing the country into sharper focus.

The kingdom is under pressure domestically and from beyond its borders. While there may never be a good time to die, regional analysts say King Abdullah's death comes at a very difficult moment.

"It's a bad time to die because so much is in flux," says Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London. But, he adds, "They've know it for a long time. They've known that Abdullah was ailing, and they planned for it."

The new ruling line-up is no surprise and the new king was quick to project unity and stability in public comments, but still, says Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Doha Center, "These are hyper-turbulent times."

Crisis In Yemen

The most acute crisis is in neighboring Yemen, where the government collapsed on Thursday, the day King Abdullah died.

Yemen's president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a key ally of Washington and Riyadh, stepped down under pressure from Houthi rebels. In this rapidly moving crisis, the Houthis say they are against foreign intervention, which could curb U.S. and Saudi involvement, including a U.S. drone campaign against al-Qaida in Yemen, a powerful franchise of the terror group.

"That's why you've already seen King Salman on the air and seen the transition," says Skaikh.

Unity within the ruling royal family seemed to reassure international oil markets and regional power players, but the new Saudi king will have a full plate of troubles. The succession was smooth, but the region is a mess, says Ali Khedery, the head of a strategic consultancy in Dubai and a former adviser to U.S. officials in Iraq.

"We are in uncharted territory," says Khedery. "The king has inherited a series of existential calamites to the Kingdom."

On the southern border, the Saudis are bracing for a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, as the civil war intensifies in a country with limited oil and water resources.

"You could have millions of refugees," who move toward the Saudi border, "there's no where else to go," he says.

"On the northern front, there is ISIS," he says, referring to the self-proclaimed Islamic State that holds large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Aging Rulers In The Gulf

The succession of a 79-year-old monarch, reportedly in poor health, also highlights another issue across the region. The elderly sultan of Oman and emir of the United Arab Emirates are also in failing health, which adds to uncertainty in the region.

"There's a coup in Yemen, Syria has imploded, Iraq has imploded, Jordan is in grave risk. The situation is worse than it has ever been in the modern Middle East," says Khedery.

As the Saudis mourn the loss of a popular monarch and the region adjusts to a new Saudi leader, one appointment is key.

Mohammed Bin Nayef, already a powerful prince as head of the Interior Ministry, was named second in line to the Saudi thrown. He quelled an al-Qaida challenge to the kingdom in 2003. His reputation was enhanced when he survived a suicide attack by a Yemeni al-Qaida operative. He is U.S. educated and is well-known and respected in Washington.

His appointment sends a signal that Saudi government intends to continue to curb dissent at home and challenge Islamists abroad.

A Generational Shift

But more important, it is the beginning of a generational shift in power, the first time a grandson of the country's founder has formally become part of the line of succession.

"He's super hard working, very smart, with close relationships with Western intelligence agencies. The transition to a younger generation was a master stroke," says Bernard Hakyel, a Saudi expert at Princeton University.

He says the appointment of Nayef has helped calm Saudi's jitters as they watch the transition at a time of unprecedented regional upheaval as well as domestic challenges.

"Saudi Arabia is far from perfect in many respects, but in a region where most transitions lead to chaos," this one was remarkably smooth, he says. Now, the new team will have to shape Saudi policy to deal with the big regional questions.

"The Saudis will try to get their act together much more now that the transition is over. They have a new ability to be more decisive than they have for a while," says Haykel.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The new king of Saudi Arabia has been named - Salman Abdulaziz. Salman Abdulaziz is 79 years old. He succeeds King Abdullah, who died this week at the age of 90. King Salman has already addressed nation on TV to reassure Saudi citizens regional powers and international oil markets. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have an effective working relationship in many areas. And President Obama heads there next week to show his support for the new monarch. The U.S. buys a lot of Saudi oil. Saudi Arabia buys a lot of U.S. military hardware and shares his suspicion of Iran and some fundamentalist groups. But Saudi Arabia has also helped fuel some jihadist movements. And as NPR's Deborah Amos explains, the kingdom faces a number of problems as this royal transition takes place.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Let's talk about beyond the borders. You know, when we heard about the death of King Abdullah, it competed in the headlines with the collapse of the government in Yemen. And that's on Saudi's southern border. This is a very fast-paced crisis. Yemen's president, who was an ally of Saudi Arabia as well as the United States, he was forced to step down by Houthi rebels. You also have al-Qaida in Yemen. You have Syria. You have Iraq. You have the potential of Iran rejoining the region. Analysts that I talked to say he picked a terrible time to die, not that anytime is a good time to die.

SIMON: And does the drop in oil prices mean that Saudi Arabia has a little less wherewithal to go into this?

AMOS: Well, let's talk about this domestically. Here's how it works. Saudi has a history of quelling dissent with money. They expand the roster of state jobs. They add unemployment benefits. There are salary increases, so if they're faced with deficits, that gets harder to do at the same time the kingdom has taken a very hard line on dissent.

Now, you know about this Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi. He was sentenced to jail time, a fine and 1,000 lashes for a website that's called Free Saudi Liberals. When the lashings began, the Saudis came under enormous pressure. And they've suspended it for the moment. So this is another crisis that is going to fall in the new king's lap.

SIMON: At the same time, there's been the appointment of a new second in line for the throne, a deputy crown prince - relatively young man, at the age of 55, Mohammed bin Nayef. He's the minister of the interior. I guess the first grandson to move into the ranks.

AMOS: Yeah, and this is a generational shift. Again, it was smooth. Mohammed bin Nayef - he got the top job at the Interior Ministry in 2012, and he's already the most powerful prince of his generation. He's been in charge of the Saudi drive against Islamists. He's credited with the successful campaign against al-Qaida in the kingdom in 2003. And most important for his image, he survived a suicide bomber, and it was a very close call. So he has shed blood in this campaign against Islamists.

SIMON: Deb, what's your feeling for what Saudis think they can expect from the transition?

AMOS: I think that the shift signals that a new generation is moving into power. There was no public infighting. And so that calmed some jitters at a time of unprecedented upheaval in the region that is right on Saudi's doorstep. Mohammed bin Nayef was educated in the U.S. He's well known in Washington. He's well liked. Considering his age and position, he can wield a lot of power. And finally, now that Abdullah has died, you may see a more decisive Saudi Arabia. The king had been sick for some time. Some people saw his decisions as erratic. Now the transition is over, and decisiveness is what it's going to take to deal with Syria, Iraq, Yemen - I can list them all. Each one of these crises would keep any monarch up all night.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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