Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will be remembered for his relatively reformist mindset and bold foreign policy initiatives, notes Bilal Y. Saab, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. But the Saudi leader’s passing will have little to no impact on the Kingdom’s future, especially given the set of increasingly difficult challenges the country will have to face at home and abroad, he writes for Foreign Affairs:
Leadership matters, especially in the Middle East, where institutions are weak and often nonexistent. But charisma and talent, on their own, won’t be enough to dig Saudi Arabia out of the profound generational problems that go beyond Abdullah, his successor Salman, or any leader who will preside over the Kingdom. Diversifying the economy, reducing unemployment, practicing good governance, further empowering women, combating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), checking Iran’s advances, improving relations with Washington, stabilizing Yemen, and leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—to name just a few—will require team work.
The question is whether the last year or two of drift, as King Abdullah grew ill, he will now be replaced with strong Saudi leadership, says Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Abdullah was widely respected at home and abroad, in part for his intelligence and in part for his piety, he writes for TIME. Whatever complaints were lodged against profligate Saudi royals did not apply to him, for his personal faith was very clear, notes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:
He was in his way also a reformer, for example establishing the Kingdom’s first coed university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. For decades, he and President Mubarak of Egypt were the two most powerful Arab leaders and key western allies. Mubarak fell in 2011, and Abdullah’s health began to fade soon after. The Arab world has lacked responsible leadership recently, although the Emiratis have tried to fill the breach.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, many pointed out that the baseline ideology for al-Qaida and other groups stemmed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, AP reports.
And the attempts of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to style himself as spiritual leader of Muslims presents a challenge to the Saudi monarchy, which is responsible for Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, CNN reports:
“The Saudis fear it as a potential domestic threat, turning Salafism into a revolutionary political ideology rather than the pro-regime bulwark it has usually been in Saudi Arabia,” says F. Gregory Gause, III, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar.
The Saudis are apoplectic that the U.S. administration is “flirting with the Iranian mullahs,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot, who believes outreach to Iran will not succeed:
Iranian revolutionaries who still chant “Death to America” will not make common cause with us. And the price of flirting with them is to drive Sunnis, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, further into the camp of the jihadists.
From a moral standpoint, admittedly, there is little to choose from between Saudi Arabia and Iran: both are despotic theocracies that are anathema to American values. But from a strategic standpoint, Iran is much more of a threat to the U.S. and our allies.
A useful analogy here is World War II where we had to choose an alliance with the lesser evil (Stalin) to defeat the greater evil (Hitler), he writes for Commentary.
Jean-Francois Seznec, who teaches political economy of the Gulf at Georgetown University, said that the transition would probably not affect Saudi oil policy and the kingdom’s strategy of keeping production up despite falling prices in order to hang on to market share, the Times reports:
“I think for the time being that they will be careful not to change very much and to go for stability,” he said.
But dealing with the crisis in Yemen, which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia and harbors Qaeda militants who are hostile to the monarchy, will probably be Salman’s first task.
“I think it scares the hell out of the Saudis,” Mr. Seznec said. “It is a dangerous place for them, and their Yemeni policy has been a huge failure.”
Gulf oil officials say privately that Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers have not completely ruled out a cut that might help calm the markets, The New York Times reports:
But the Persian Gulf producers insist that a wide range of countries, including Venezuela and non-OPEC producers like Russia, should participate — a long shot at this point.
“Saudi oil policy is set largely on a technocratic basis,” said Anthony Cordesman, a geopolitical expert who follows Persian Gulf affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is no major international reason for Saudi Arabia to change its current approach.”
Simon Henderson, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was most likely that the reins of power, including over oil policy, would be held by a group of advisers now forming around the king.
“Now that he is older, he is likely to take a more hands-off approach, relying on a coterie of advisers, which will probably include several of his sons,” said Mr. Henderson, who has written extensively on Saudi succession issues.
Abdullah’s death marks the passing from the scene of the last leader with real stature in the Arab world, notes Marwan Muasher, the Carnegie Endowment’s Vice President for Studies:
It is difficult to think of any individual today who would be able to bring together peers from across the region to work collectively as he did with, for example, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The appointment of Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince is significant in two ways: it signals a generational shift in the line of succession, and he is not the oldest of the cousins, signaling a new method of choosing Saudi kings.
Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program has argued that “Saudi Arabia is likely to continue to favor preserving its market share even as this means the decline of the price of oil.” Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center has written that Saudi Arabia can be expected to continue on the same foreign policy path it has been on for the past twelve months, but that “it can now do it more boldly because Mohammed bin Nayef has succeeded in formalizing his influence.”
“Their greatest worry is what’s going on in Yemen, which is very much their backyard,” said Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.
The recent controversy over the draconian sentence against liberal blogger Raif Badawi (above, right), or the recent public beheading of a convicted murderer, demonstrate the gulf between official Saudi perceptions and most of the rest of the world, notes Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine.
But while reforms under King Abdullah were limited and cautious, they did have some impact, he writes for Forward:
Among other things, there is an increasing pattern of prominent Saudis becoming far more publicly critical of official conduct. For example, last week the veteran Saudi journalist Khaled Almaeena complained in the New York Times that, “You reach a stage where you can’t defend the country… when someone is being lashed every Friday.” Special Dispatch No. 5943 – From The MEMRI Archives: Saudi Prince Salman: The Term ‘Wahhabi’ Was Coined by Saudi Arabia’s Enemies
Access Carnegie’s latest resources on Saudi Arabia here.