Saudi Arabia’s king shows it’s a good time to be a strongman

New heir Nayef, left, with King Salman. (Reuters/Jim Bourg)
New heir Nayef, left, with King Salman. (Reuters/Jim Bourg)
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In Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev got himself re-elected this week with 98% of the vote. In Sudan, leader Omar al-Bashir was re-elected with a 94% advantage. Both have led their countries for a quarter-century.

Today we have Saudi King Salman, who took the throne in January, shaking up his line of succession. In Kazakhstan and Sudan, the elections were almost wholly about further entrenching an aged leadership. But Salman’s actions arguably will have more momentous implications—at a time the Saudi kingdom is being roiled from within and without, politically and economically, Salman has elevated youthful relatives with serious security and military credentials.

In a palace announcement this morning, Salman, 79, accepted the resignation of his heir (anointed by his predecessor and half-brother Abdullah), and replaced him with a robust nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, a key actor in battling al Qaeda. Nayef is now crown prince.

More striking, Salman promoted his favorite son, Mohammed bin Salman, who is about 30 years old, as deputy crown prince, or second in line to the throne. This prince has led the country’s air attack against Houthi fighters in Yemen.

Perhaps to help ensure that all this went down well at home, Salman’s decree also awarded a bonus of an extra month’s salary to all Saudis working in national security and for the armed forces.

Among the challenges facing the new palace lineup: a resurgent Iran, on the apparent cusp of a historic diplomatic agreement with the United States, and allegedly backing the Houthis in Yemen; ISIL’s offensive in Iraq and Syria; and the implosion of oil prices, Saudi’s key commodity.