King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud holds absolute political power over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he serves as Head of State and monarch. As an authoritarian leader, he is able to make quick changes in policy, though this ability must be practiced with caution due to the reactionary social climate in Saudi Arabia.
The House of Saud, the extensive royal family, has been in power for 273 years, and King Salman seeks to strengthen his branch of the family as indicated by his recent promotions of his sons to more powerful government positions. With power to freely shuffle government posts and issue decrees, Salman adjusted the line of succession so that his son, Mohammed bin Salman, will take power, the first time since the country’s first ruler that a Saudi monarch designated his son instead of a brother as heir.
Despite having made decisions for the obvious benefit of his family, Salman still demonstrates intentions for the professionalization of the government. He has replaced government ministers with non-royal businessmen and has allowed the private sector to take on a larger role in the economy. Further, Salman ordered an anti-corruption initiative, seeking reform and blaming the problem of corruption for hindering development in the country. This initiative resulted in the removal and detainment of eleven princes and numerous current and former ministers.
However, the changes Salman implements are limited by the reactions of his country. Recent salary cuts, made in an attempt to adjust the kingdom’s finances which have struggled due to low oil prices, were revoked and financial perks were restored following widespread dissatisfaction. The government claims these recent actions indicated the country’s improved economic position, though analysts believe the moves may have been made to appease the public, as recent mandates have caused increases in energy, water and fuel costs.
Additionally, in Saudi Arabia, less conservative actions are risky. King Salman’s recent decree to allow women to drive ended a conservative tradition that was seen by many as a symbol of the repression of women in the country. This decision angered conservatives, including influential figures who give critical support to the ruling family. Still, despite the backlash, King Salman has continued to be more inclusive of women through the modernizing reforms he has implemented since he took over as king in 2015.
Salman has been willing to reconsider and change aspects of Saudi Arabian society and has succeeded in making promising efforts to modernize and diversify the economy of Saudi Arabia. His recent visit to Russia was an effort to shift away from reliance on the United States and develop more diverse international partnerships. Saudi Arabia is eager for an outside investment as the country seeks to diversify its economy, and also hopes to have Russian support in limiting Iranian influence in Syria.
As Saudi Arabian monarch, King Salman has ultimate power and is free to make changes to the country with his unchecked leadership. Still, Salman is the leader of a reactionary society and must consider the response of his people before implementing change, which places a limit on his authoritarianism.