By Israa Saber, Bruce Riedel
Since ascending the throne in January 2015, King Salman of Saudi Arabia has been a frequent traveler. In 2016, he went on a tour of surrounding Gulf countries and in 2017, he did a month-long tour of Southeast and East Asia, in addition to other international travel. This all changed in 2018. Surprisingly, King Salman has not left the kingdom since a visit to Russia in October 2017. This includes forgoing his annual month-long summer vacation in Morocco.
The sudden cease in foreign travel prompts the question: What changed? King Salman is believed to be in the early stages of dementia, and as time goes on, his condition surely worsens. Though Saudi officials continue to deny that the king’s health is in decline, recent episodes contribute to continued speculation regarding his mental state. King Salman’s speeches have become significantly shorter; his latest address to the kingdom lasted a mere eight minutes. Meetings with foreign dignitaries have also become more brief and less substantive. The king reportedly recently asked a Libyan delegation about the health of Moammar Gadhafi, at which point Royal Court aides cut the meeting short.
Given his declining health, one would expect the king to continue traveling for summer vacations, even if he chooses to curtail official state visits. Therefore, it is particularly striking that King Salman did without his annual month-long trip to Morocco in 2018. Perhaps the reason for the king’s lack of travel is more political in nature. King Salman’s last foreign trip was in October 2017, one month before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) led a shakedown of Saudi Arabia’s elites in the name of ending corruption. Given the fact that this move made enemies out of many of the kingdom’s most powerful, it may be that King Salman recognizes that should he leave the state, other members of the royal family may mobilize in an effort to remove the crown prince from the line of succession.
The king’s presence also adds legitimacy to MBS’s policy decisions, both domestic and foreign. Conversely, perhaps the king chooses to remain in the kingdom in an effort to reign in the crown prince and keep him in check. For all of the attention MBS has received as the face of the kingdom’s recent reforms and policy decisions, it is clear that King Salman continues to have final say. This has been made evident time and again, with instances such as the king calling off the Aramco IPO or clarifying that the kingdom remains a staunch supporter of the Palestinians and would not bend in its support for Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.
Though it is impossible to conclusively state the reason for King Salman’s complete abstention from foreign travel at this time, whatever the impetus for the king’s lack of travel, it is likely to have significant ramifications for the future of internal Saudi politics.
The below timeline outlines the king’s foreign travels since 2015 and will be updated regularly to reflect any changes.
king salman’s travels
- October 4-7
King Salman travels to Russia for four days to strengthen bilateral relations.
- July 24-August 23
King Salman travels to Morocco for one month for his annual vacation.
- March 27-30
King Salman travels to Jordan for four days for the 28th Arab League Summit.
- March 15-17
King Salman ends his tour of Asia with three days in China. He was initially planning to travel to the Maldives next, but officials say he canceled the trip because of a swine flu outbreak. It is more likely that the trip was canceled because of demonstrations following reports that the Maldivian government was planning to sell islands to the Saudi government.
- March 12-15
King Salman travels to Japan for four days.
- March 4
King Salman leaves Indonesia for one day to travel to Brunei.
- March 1-12
King Salman travels to Indonesia for 12 days, nine of which were spent in Bali on vacation.
- February 26-March 1
King Salman starts a regional tour of Asia with four days in Malaysia.
- December 7-8
King Salman ends his Gulf tour with two days in Kuwait.
- December 7
King Salman travels to Bahrain for one day.
- December 5-6
King Salman travels to Qatar for two days.
- December 3-5
King Salman begins a tour of the Gulf with three days in the United Arab Emirates.
- July 14-August 14
King Salman spends one month in Morocco on vacation.
- April 11-15
King Salman travels to Turkey for four days to attend the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit.
- April 7-11
King Salman travels to Egypt for five days. During this trip, the Egyptian Parliament voted to transfer sovereignty of the islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia after the king promised aid and investment.
- September 6-12
King Salman travels back to Morocco for, at most, six days.
- September 3-5
King Salman makes his first trip to the United States since ascending to the throne.
- August 3-September 1
King Salman vacations in Morocco for approximately one month.
- July 28-August 3
King Salman travels to France for what is meant to be a three-week vacation. He left just one week into the trip after public beaches were closed off for him and his 1,000-strong entourage and locals petitioned for the beach to be reopened.
- March 27-29
King Salman travels to Egypt for at least three days to attend the 26th Arab League Summit.