The death of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz last Friday marked a passing of the torch in Saudi Arabia’s kingdom. His replacement – and brother – Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud has come at a tenuous time, with people now questioning his involvement in terrorist organizations and the country’s shaky human rights record.
Salman, who is 79 years old, has held notable positions throughout his life, including serving as the governor of Riyadh and acting as the nation’s defense minister since 2011. He’s won numerous awards for his social work and endeavors, headed a multitude of cultural institutions and has been a part of development projects on the Arabian Peninsula and around the Muslim world.
But who is Salman underneath the pomp and circumstance and what does his new position mean for the country?
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Although some have viewed Salman as an excellent mediator, his first week in office has been marred by the public beheading of four citizens. One of the men who was executed, Mousa bin Saeed Ali al-Zahrani, had been accused of luring young girls to his home, plying them with alcohol and raping them. However, after the validity of his trial was questioned and appeals from his family were made, the former king Abdullah promised to re-investigate his case. When Abdullah died that hope also died, along with al-Zahrani.
Public beheadings are common in Saudi Arabia, with more than 80 performed in 2014, and 16 already performed in 2015. In 2014, one of these events was caught on film and posted on social media sites. This led many to wonder why the United States rarely spoke about the massive human rights abuses that regularly take place in the kingdom.
One outlet, the Middle East Eye, took it upon themselves to compare the laws and punnishments in Saudi Arabia with the brutality the west decries in ISIS:
Even further, an article in Foreign Policy suggests that Salman’s past relationships with dubious characters and fund raising events is highly problematic:
“Salman has an ongoing track record of patronizing hateful extremists that is now getting downplayed for political convenience. As former CIA official Bruce Riedel astutely pointed out, Salman was the regime’s lead fundraiser for mujahideen, or Islamic holy warriors, in Afghanistan in the 1980s.”
Although it should be noted that support for the mujahideen during the war with the Soviets in Afghanistan was supported not just by Saudi Arabia, but by the USA (who saw it as a proxy war against communism), his ties to Saudi charities in Bosnia raise a few more eyebrows.
“Reprising this role in Bosnia, Salman was appointed by his full brother and close political ally King Fahd to direct the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SHC)…By 2001, the organization had collected around $600 million — nominally for relief and religious purposes… In 2001, NATO forces raided the SHC’s Sarajevo offices, discovering a treasure trove of terrorist materials: before-and-after photographs of al Qaeda attacks, instructions on how to fake U.S. State Department badges, and maps marked to highlight government buildings across Washington.
The government of Saudi Arabia denied all knowledge of the terrorism-related activities that charities they’ve worked with or funded were involved in.
However, Salman, above all, has been referred to as a pragmatic leader, who is adept at balancing the competing needs of Saudi society. Many experts contend that life on the peninsula will likely continue on a similar path, as him and his brother often followed the same school of thought. Yet for human rights activists, women, and those who suffer under some of the nation’s incredible abuses, more of the same is hardly welcome news.