BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia’s new king moved swiftly Friday to assert the continuity of his family’s rule, declaring that he would not veer from Saudi traditions and appointing two younger successors who could lead the oil-rich monarchy for decades to come.
In a region rife with war and instability, the orderly ascension of King Salman so promptly after the death of his half brother, King Abdullah, projected an image of cohesiveness unshaken by the region’s many crises.
“We will continue adhering to the correct policies that Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” Salman declared in a televised address.
He assumes the throne at a time when significant challenges face his realm, the world’s leading oil exporter and one of the United States’ strongest allies in the Arab world.
The extremists of the Islamic State continue to draw new recruits, including hundreds of young Saudis, and the Western-backed government in neighboring Yemen has collapsed, creating new opportunities for Al Qaeda, which dreams of ending the Saudi monarchy’s control of Islam’s holiest sites.
The recent fall in world oil prices may strain the country’s finances as it seeks to diversify its economy and to integrate its large and not particularly well-educated youth population into the work force.
Analysts said they did not expect Salman to pursue policies significantly different from the gradual reformist agenda of his predecessor. Salman’s only immediate policy initiative Friday was to clarify who would succeed him. The issue was a pressing one because the new monarch is thought to be 79 years old, and he has had various health problems.
‘The Arab and the Islamic nations are in dire need for solidarity and cohesion.’King Salman
The new appointments appeared to resolve a thorny generational issue. So far, every king of Saudi Arabia since the death of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz, in 1953 has been one of his dozens of sons — Salman is the fifth to reign.
Under the royal decrees issued Friday, one more half-brother — Muqrin — has been named crown prince and next in line for the throne. After him will come the country’s powerful interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was named deputy crown prince Friday; he is the first heir to the throne from among Abdulaziz’s grandsons.
“This settles for a long time the question of succession to the next generation,” said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics. “It removed a bit of worry for a lot of Saudis, who thought that there would be infighting.”
The biggest challenge the country faces may be one at least partly of its own making, the decline in the oil revenues that form the economic foundation of the state. As the dominant producer in OPEC, Saudi Arabia’s decisions on production levels have enormous influence on world oil markets, and it has maintained fairly high output recently despite an oversupplied market, helping to depress prices.
Saudi leaders use their oil income not only to affect regional politics but to pacify their own people. After the popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring toppled or threatened several Saudi allies in the region, Saudi Arabia responded by bankrolling its friends abroad and spending lavishly on domestic projects.
The country, with significant reserves of wealth, does not face an immediate financial crisis, but a long period of low oil prices could limit its ability to maneuver, both abroad and at home.
“Things are always stable in Saudi Arabia when they can afford to keep paying,” Hertog said.
Salman’s ascension came the day after the abrupt collapse of the government of neighboring Yemen, leaving that country leaderless in the face of pro-Iranian rebels and a resurgent Al Qaeda affiliate.
In his address, Salman acknowledged the region’s tensions.
“The Arab and the Islamic nations are in dire need for solidarity and cohesion,” he said.
The scene in Riyadh on Friday clearly demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s regional clout. Leaders like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey swiftly rearranged their schedules to fly to the Saudi capital for Abdullah’s funeral. King Abdullah of Jordan canceled an appearance at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in order to attend.
Despite tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Iranian government also offered condolences Friday and said its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would attend an official memorial service for Abdullah.
The royal court in Saudi Arabia did not disclose the cause of Abdullah’s death. He had been hospitalized in Riyadh since New Year’s Eve with what the official Saudi Press Agency said was a lung infection.