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Saudi King Salman marks first year of reign

January 23, 2016 - SAUDI ARABIA

King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ends the first year of his reign in frail health and facing many of the challenges that confronted the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who died on Jan 23 aged 90. Salman shaped many of the policies that marked his half brother's reign and the issues remain broadly similar.

The monarchy of the oil-rich, deeply religious country passed seamlessly from half brother to half brother and King Salman's successor has already been named, promising another smooth handover. The designated crown prince is another half brother, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, born in 1945. Salman was named heir apparent in 2012, when two elder full-brothers, Crown Princes Sultan and Nayef died within a year of each other.

King Salman started his political career at a relatively young age in the 1960s and was appointed minister of defence in 2011. The 25th son of Ibn Saud, founder of the modern Kingdom, is reported to have suffered at least one stroke. The Independent notes that reports of dementia have also surfaced, but are strongly denied by the palace.

The Saudis have managed to keep the lid on domestic unrest during the Arab Spring upheaval, while market reforms, put in place during King Abdullah's time, are expected to help the country escape the worst of the economic downturn and potential domestic unrest from falling oil prices.

Some differences lie in the attitudes of the two men. While Salman hasn't rolled back his predecessor's political and social reforms, he is less enthusiastic about modernisation and supports sharia law at home while prosecuting the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Houthi rebels. Five Gulf Arab states - Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Saudi Arabia - make up the coalition force, which has shown no sign of being able to deliver the knock-out blow.

Meanwhile, Salman is drawing international criticism for the rise in the number of beheadings in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International, which with the AFP news agency keeps a record of those executed by the Saudi government, said the rate surged in August last year and continued to increase under the new king from January. Salman is under particular fire after the execution of a Shiite cleric in the Sunni country, an act that has raised tensions with Iran almost to a war footing. He is also being criticized for bombing campaigns in Yemen that are widely deemed reckless.

While al-Saud power over the country appears assured, the family's role as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques at Mecca is under threat. Regional rivals have questioned Saudi competence following the collapse on Sep 11 of a construction crane at the Great Mosque that killed over 100 people and the stampede on Sep 24 that killed at least 769 pilgrims. The deadly incidents follow a string of mass fatalities during the Hajj pilgrimage that have defied Saudi efforts to keep Islam's holy places safe, adding to the case against its control of the most important shrine in Islam.

King Salman's year of trouble (Economist 3 Oct 2015)

Saudi war in Yemen impossible to win (Al-Monitor 2 Oct 2015)

Saudi Arabia escalates its military campaign (Economist 10 Sep 2015)

King Abdullah dead: Who is King Salman?

Saudi Arabia executes 'a person every two days' as rate of beheadings soars under King Salman

Date written/update: 2016-01-13