January 23, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Death of a King

• The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has brought the country’s internal and external problems into sharper focus

• Internally, King Salman has moved quickly to solve the key challenge of the succession beyond his brothers through the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as Deputy Crown Prince

• But externally, all regional indicators are pointing down, with Saudi Arabia finding itself in the surprising position of lead Arab State

• Paradoxically, Iran may offer the new King his best chance of a lasting legacy.


Although inevitable and expected, the death of King Abdullah has brought the problems facing Saudi Arabia into sharper focus. King Salman has moved quickly to solve one of them: the succession. He has confirmed his predecessor’s choice of his half brother, Prince Muqrin, as next-in-line to the throne, and has appointed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the popular and well-respected Interior Minister, as Deputy Crown Prince, so resolving the looming problem of who should start the rule of the next generation of princes. Although Muqrin will have the right to appoint his own Crown Prince if he succeeds, one may safely assume that this arrangement was reached under the previous king and had won the support of the other next generation contenders to the throne. It is an astute move that will be popular both a home and abroad, and typical of the deliberate style of King Abdullah. As Salman is also known as a man who seeks solutions, Saudi Arabia may find that it has quickly reassured its partners as well as its people that the royal family is both resilient and united.

But even so, there is no disguising the medium-term challenges that face the new King, of which sorting out the succession was only one. King Abdullah reigned for 10 years as Crown Prince while his brother, Fahd, was too ill to govern, and then for almost 10 years as King in his own right. He was a steady leader with an ability to move the Kingdom forward in both social and political affairs. Even if the progress looked slow and limited from the outside, it was nonetheless reform in a direction that key Western allies could recognize and applaud. He managed to steer a course between conservative resistance and popular impatience, and at the same time reinforced the hierarchical nature of society upon which the monarchy depends. Towards the end of his reign, he began to address the role of the religious authorities, challenging their silence about the extremist violence being committed in the name of Islam. But further progress looks harder to achieve in his absence.

The continued strength of the religious right can be seen in the recent flogging of a blogger and the public beheading of a woman for murder. This is not the Saudi Arabia that coalition partners wish to support in the fight against the so-called Islamic State; and it draws attention to the fact that the beliefs and practices of the Islamic State arise from a very similar educational and cultural background to those of Saudi Arabia. It may worry the new King that many Saudis oppose the Islamic State merely because they are told to do so, while wondering why it is cast as being so bad. It is no coincidence that there are reported to be about 3,000 Saudis fighting with the Islamic State, and if the group makes a push towards the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as any self-respecting Caliph might do, it may find a good number of sympathizers ready to offer at least tacit support. It is not a good time therefore for Salman to continue the gentle reforms pursued by his predecessor. He may even roll back some changes in order to ensure he has as much credibility with the religious right as he can muster.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, a country of less than 30 million people, with close to 50% of its population under 25, is now the lead Arab nation. This is not a position that Salman must relish as he tries to consolidate his power and steady the Kingdom. Iraq and Syria are long-term problems with few good outcomes. Yemen is also on a path to self-destruction as old enemies re-emerge to sweep away the gains of the last three years. All policy alternatives there are unattractive, whether allowing ex-President Saleh to regain authority, allowing the Houthis more space and so risking increased Iranian influence, or allowing internal chaos from which al-Qaeda may be the main beneficiary. At the same time, Saudi Arabia must support Egypt, help Bahrain see off its Shi’a majority; manage differences within the Gulf Cooperation Council; and preserve the King’s authority as the custodian of the two holy places.

And on top of this is the battle for regional hegemony with Iran, which paradoxically may be the easiest problem to solve but the hardest to address. Saudi Arabia may be able to rely on the Republican Party in the U.S. Congress, helped by the Israeli Government, to scupper any agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, so ensuring Iran’s continued international isolation and economic disadvantage. But this is not necessarily its best policy option. Iran is over-extended in both Iraq and Syria, and facing a pivotal period of internal competition between the government and the hard-line clerics and military organizations that have dominated the country since the 1979 revolution; and it is far more affected by the low price of oil than is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is therefore in a strong negotiating position, and by moving towards an understanding with Iran, it could reduce the regional tensions and achieve foreign policy successes that would make other problems easier to deal with and provide more options to do so. If King Salman is strong and healthy enough to seek a legacy beyond holding his family together and ensuring the continuation of the monarchy, then—despite the opposition he would face—this might be a good area to consider.


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