The king is dead, long live the king. The swift Saudi transfer of power after the death of King Abdullah this week bears similarities to the most recent transfer of power in the Catholic Church. In both cases an older man near the end of his career took over a powerful, wealthy, deeply religious organization. In both cases the new leader assumes power after the reign of a controversial, conservative leader. The new Saudi king, King Salman, was born in 1935. Pope Francis was born a year later in 1936. King Salman has been part of the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia for half a century, just as Francis was a high-ranking official in the Catholic hierarchy before his elevation to Pope.
Francis is generally considered to have moved the Catholic Church toward some more liberal stances during his tenure–going against strict religious dogma that had long dictated societal inequalities, especially between men and women. The Pope has also opened the church to previously excluded groups like gays. It remains to be seen if King Salman might impact Saudi Arabian society in any similar way–he would have to push against similarly strict religious dogma and he has shown little sign of being a contrarian. But Salman had never been king, a position which grants him more power and some autonomy. One difference between Francis and Salman is that the King Salman has been married three times and has had eleven children, including ten sons. And King Salman has shown more than just interest in modernity and the West–one of his sons became the first Saudi to go “into space when he joined a 1985 mission on the US space shuttle Discovery.”