King Salman: what do we know about new Saudi Arabian leader?

The 79-year-old faces 'exceptional new challenges' as he takes over from the late King Abdullah

The new king of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz
Salman bin Abdulaziz
(Image credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty)

The death of King Abdullah means his half-brother Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz has been left in charge of Saudi Arabia. In a televised statement today, 79-year-old Salman announced his brother's death and declared that he had assumed the throne, putting him in charge of a fifth of the world's known petroleum reserves, as well as Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

So what do we know about the new king?

What is Salman's background?

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Born on 31 December 1935, King Salman is the 25th son of King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who died in 1953. At the age of 20 he was appointed governor of Riyadh province, a post that raised his international profile, and more than 50 years later, in 2011, he was appointed minister of defence. During decades in charge of Riyadh he oversaw its transformation from "an isolated desert town into a crowded city of skyscrapers, universities and Western fast-food chains", says the BBC. Through his son, Salman also controls the prominent Arab media company, Saudi Research and Marketing Group.

Why was he chosen?

Like the late King Abdullah, Salman is one of the many sons of King Abdul, who had as many as 22 wives and dozens of children. The throne has passed from son to son over the last six decades. Salman, born to Princess Hassa al-Sudairi, stands to be succeeded by 69-year-old Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, King Abdul's youngest surviving son. Bruce Reidel, a CIA veteran and now a Brookings Institution expert, says that the "unprecedented challenge" of picking a next in line after Muqrin from among King Abdul's grandsons will "raise questions of legitimacy not faced in the last century of Saudi rule".

What kind of king will he be?

The New York Times suggests that Salman will preserve the kingdom's current policies. Credited with transforming Riyadh during his time as governor, Salman has a reputation for "austerity, hard work and discipline", says Arab News, which is owned by Salman's media group. He is also renowned for his belief in good governance and acted as the "family enforcer, discreetly settling problems with some of the thousands of royals who live in the capital", says The Guardian. During the 1980s he helped collect funds to support the Mujahideen in the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

What tests does Salman face as king?

Salman faces "exceptional new challenges", says the NYT, with turmoil in the region, including the destabilising crisis in Yemen and the rise of Islamic State to the north. Since the Arab Spring, the kingdom has stood against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood. On top of this, Saudi Arabia continues to face widespread international criticism for its human rights record. The kingdom has also caused global controversy by refusing to cut its oil supply, despite a collapse in price that has depleted its own treasury. It hoped to increase market share at the expense of its rivals, who could not so easily afford to pump oil at such low prices.

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