The passing of Saudi King Abdullah is one more element in the Middle East's changing landscape. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the new Saudi king as well as the many challenges facing the desert realm.
Back at the end of the twentieth century, the dynamics of the Middle East seemed so simple. Iran hated the US (and the US reciprocated the favour). Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states pumped oil and were supported by the US and other western nations, largely because of that. Autocrats and monarchs of various unsavoury types ruled Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the rest – although the Egyptian ruler, Hosni Mubarak had become a firm ally of the US and Egypt and Israel had reached a stable relationship.
Even beyond Egypt, the Israelis had achieved a kind of “trapped in the amber”, “cold peace” with several other neighbours, and they maintained their control over those often-restive Palestinian zones of occupation. Meanwhile, the Israelis continued their slow movement into the West Bank with new officially sanctioned as well as some not so officially sanctioned settlements, creating new facts on the ground as the phrase goes. But, on a whole, the regional system seemed pretty much locked down for the foreseeable future. It would be more of the same – forever and ever, amen.
But by 2015, major portions of those eternal verities have been wiped aside – and more may yet follow. Within the past week, the elderly Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, passed away at the age of 90, to be replaced quickly by his younger half-brother, a sprightly 79, the new King Salman. (Salman, like Abdullah, is a son of the country’s founder monarch, King Saud). In most mainstream summaries of his life and times, observers have noted Abdullah was a moderate reformist, gradually leading his nation out of its past and that Salman seems cut from the same cloth.
Photo: Spectators observe a minute of silence for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who died aged 90 in the early hours of 23 January before the Qatar 2015 24th Men’s Handball World Championship match between Qatar and Belarus at the Lusail Multipurpose Hall outside Doha, Qatar, 23 January 2015. Qatar 2015 via epa/Srdjan Suki
Such an observation quickly had more cynical, acid-tongued wags engaged in tongue-in-cheek praise for the late King Abdullah for leading his nation into the bright sunlight of the 8th century – out from of the dark obscurantism of the 7th. Other critics have pointed to a whole raft of laws and policies on gender (in)equality, the continuing, pervasive theocratic influence over Saudi society, severe corporal punishment for journalists and even death for a variety of sins as evidence King Abdullah as a reformist ruler is a reputation well overstated. Instead, his primary goal had been the preservation of national stability – enforced by a powerful theocratic class, and ruled over by a vast royal family that monopolised positions and resources.
From one of America’s leading public policy research institutes, The Brookings Institution, scholar Bruce Riedel notes King Salman has been the country’s defence minister, and he has been carrying out most of the official foreign travel on behalf of the previous king for some years already. Moreover, Riedel says, Salman was “governor of Riyadh province for 48 years. When he became governor in 1963, Riyadh had 200,000 inhabitants — today it has more than seven million. Salman presided over this remarkable transformation with a record for good governance and a lack of corruption. Since most of the royal princes and princesses live in Riyadh, he was also the family sheriff, ensuring any transgressions were dealt with smoothly and quietly, with no publicity.” Riedel adds that Salman has had a history of working closely with his nation’s Wahhabi clerical establishment, including efforts to raise and supply funds to support the Mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan years earlier in their fight against the Soviet Union.
Already tabbed as the new king’s heir is yet another half-brother, Prince Muqrin, similarly a son of King Saud. Riedel adds, “Muqrin is widely believed to be the last capable son of Ibn Saud. So if and when Muqrin ascends to the Crown Prince position, the Kingdom will face the unprecedented challenge of picking a next-in-line from the grandsons of Ibn Saud. That will raise questions of legitimacy not faced in the last century of Saudi rule… With the Arab world facing its worst crisis in decades, the royals will want to present an image of stability and strength. This is especially true with the collapse of the pro-Saudi government in Yemen, which will be Salman’s first crisis.”
And that situation in Yemen is, of course, a challenge for more than just the Saudis. The most recent government changeover – effectively a coup by Houthi rebels – has replaced a government that had been strongly supported by and supportive of the US and other western nations in a struggle against various fundamentalist insurgents.
The Houthis were a rebel group in the mountainous regions of the country, largely drawn from a particular strain of Shiite Islam, and significantly supported by Iran (a similarly Shiite nation), along with the various Hezbollah militias in the region. The Houthis had been waging an increasingly successful fight against Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s administration (that had replaced the long-time autocratic regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh) until their rather sudden success in deposing Hadi’s government just a few days ago.
At present, the newest administration in Yemen has yet to be firmly established. The most recent AP reports on the situation say, “U.N.-sponsored talks between Yemeni political parties and Shiite rebels who occupy the capital broke down Sunday, with several main factions calling for renewed protests against the rebels. The failure extended a power vacuum in the leaderless country, home to what Washington considers al-Qaida’s most dangerous offshoot, after the president resigned last week while rebels surrounded his house and demanded concessions. An official with the leadership of a party present at Sunday’s meeting says the Islamist Islah party pulled out of the talks along with the Socialist and Nasserite parties. The official says the group rejects dialogue with the rebels, known as Houthis, and calls for peaceful protests against them.”
The relative chaos in Yemen could lead to a period of extended civil war between the newly victorious Houthi forces, supporters of former President Hadi, and yet other rebels, including groups recognised as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP has been held responsible for recruiting and training jihadist-style fighters, including some who have come from various western nations and then returned to their original homes with the intention to wreak damage in the West. This current struggle in Yemen could lead to a larger breakdown of civil order in the country – or even a de facto partition of the country.
Such a partition could roughly parallel the divide between the old Kingdom of Yemen in the north and Aden/South Yemen. The latter was formerly the British Aden Protectorate until it gained independence in 1967. The Aden harbour has been a strategically important one for monitoring global sea commerce to and from the Suez Canal, as well as helping manage the fight against Indian Ocean piracy. American military teams have been active in using drone strikes against AQAP targets in the southern part of the country in recent years as well.
The possibility of the collapse of civil order in Yemen, or the nation’s seeming realignment with Hezbollah and Iran would be tantamount, as far as the Saudis would see it, to adding a second front for the Saudis to contend with in the maintenance of their national security. This would be in addition to the internal domestic pressures both for more theocratic behaviour on the one hand, as well as more genuine reform and social change on the other. This could be King Salman’s first great early test of leadership in Saudi Arabia. (The Saudis have consistently seen Yemen to be a key element in Saudi security. Back in the 1960s, for example, they had engaged in a proxy war there, fighting Egyptian support of rebels, while the Saudi’s backed the Yemeni king.)
Meanwhile, the recent emergence of a brutal Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or IS regime, has thrown the northern tier of the region into enormous turmoil as well. Several years ago, as a part of the Arab Spring back in 2010-2011, Bashar al Assad’s regime (substantially supported by his Alawite – Shiia sect coreligionists) had initially came under fire from growing popular protest and irregular fighters representing a wide range of the regime’s opponents, encouraged by the seeming successes of the Arab Spring outbreaks across the Maghreb nations of North Africa.
But as that loose alliance was increasingly pushed back at enormous cost to civilians (both as fatalities and as refugees), and to the irreplaceable historic sites of Syria as well, the largely radical Sunni IS movement began to occupy the political and military power vacuum across a wide swathe of eastern Syria. Its hold there increasingly secure, it then pushed on into northern Iraq where a similarly weak military and political situation prevailed. IS moved quickly to push aside the largely Shiite, but increasingly demoralised, Iraqi army, as well as the fighters of an autonomous Kurdistan.
This is where things became increasingly complicated. When the western nations ultimately declined to attack Syrian president al Assad’s forces (despite being urged on this course of action by nations such as Saudi Arabia), this gave the Syrian government a stronger chance to concentrate its military force on the various rebel groups. This, in turn, cleared the field for IS in Syria – before that group turned toward Iraq as well.
By this time, in confronting this common enemy, Iran and the US had appeared to be coming together in something like a low-level, informal alignment, together with the other Persian Gulf states and a number of Western nations operating together against IS. There even has come to be something approaching a tacit truce with al Assad’s Syrian forces – all in an effort to hold off IS’s advance.
Moreover, in response to the growing strength of IS, the Saudis, meanwhile, have been busy constructing a high-tech barrier in depth to head off IS movements towards their country from the North – towards its population centres and the nation’s crucial oil fields. Concurrently, Turkey has been keeping a watchful eye on the struggles between IS and – primarily – the Kurdish forces. For the Turks, the critical issue has been to keep the fighting on the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border, even as refugee populations continue to stream into Turkey, fleeing IS’ depredations.
But there is more to consider. Further to the west, Israel under Binyamin Netanyahu has continued to support a policy of adding new rounds of settlements in the West Bank, and then, in 2014, it had carried out a major military action against Gaza in response to a series of provocations from Hamas. Currently, Israel is also poised in a kind of alignment with the forces arrayed against IS, even as it wishes to continue its containment of Syria and Hezbollah militia forces. One key complication, of course, is that the Israeli government is simultaneously of the opinion that the presumed nuclear ambitions of Iran are the most dangerous threat to their nation, far more than any threat from IS – or any other potential conventional opponent in the region.
In a calculated move designed to maintain strong pressure on the Obama administration to keep pressing Iran to decisively renounce any drive towards achieving the creation of weapons grade fissile materials, Prime Minister Netanyahu has attempted a problematic diplomatic end-run around the Obama administration in Washington. Just a few weeks before Israel’s election (as well as the deadline on the Iranian negotiations between the group of six major powers and Iran), Netanyahu has accepted an invitation directly from the Republican congressional leadership to speak to the US Congress, rather than liaising with the White House or State Department, as is the norm for a head of government.
From the Republicans’ perspective, this invitation has also been created as a way of both embarrassing and weakening President Obama by demonstrating they can begin to carry out foreign diplomatic initiatives right in the face of the president. But, presumably, too, this is also designed – from the Israeli perspective – to provide a boost to Netanyahu’s party’s electoral chances. But even here there may be some signs of change as well.
A revitalised opposition alliance – the newly named Zionist Camp – bringing together Yitzhak Herzog’s Labour Party and Tzipi Livni (previously a cabinet member in Netanyahu’s government) supporters may just possibly pull ahead of Netanyahu in the upcoming election. And it may even get a boost from the actions of the various Israeli Arab parties who have just pledged to campaign together as a united force, even as they will not align themselves directly with Herzog’s campaign. This may well be an important development in Israeli politics.
Israeli Arabs are about 20% of the total citizen population. Currently, 11% of the members of the Israeli parliament are part of these Arab parties but this disproportionately small number of MPs may well be attributable to their lower rate of voting – roughly 15% less than that of Jewish Israelis. As a united slate, they hope to attract more potential voters to venture forth and vote and thereby gain a larger share of the resulting membership of the Knesset.
Having done that, they might well be in a position of strength to join in some sort of coalition with Herzog’s forces to allow him to form the next government that is more oriented towards negotiations towards a two state solution than has been the case for many years. If all of that were to happen, it is just conceivable the next election could open a new chapter in Israel’s orientation towards the Palestinians.
Across the region, there are significant possibilities for change – some good, some rather less so. Continuing success by IS could well bring the quiet, tacit alliance against it more forcibly together. But, down the road, there are also the possibilities for greater tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence and dominance in the region as well as new efforts by Saudi Arabia to be more visibly in an international leadership role. (Controlling all the oil won’t hurt, even if the price continues to be half of what it was only a year ago.) Concurrently, the political dynamic of Israel may also be changing as new opportunities for movement open up. King Salman has come to the throne at the most interesting time. DM
Photo: A file picture dated 11 December 2013 shows then Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud listens to the closing statement at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit meeting in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Saudi state TV has announced on 22 January 2015 that Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who was admitted to a hospital in Riyadh with pneumonia, has died and named Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud as his successor. EPA/RAED QUTENA
- Succession in Saudi Arabia: Salman’s Ascension Promises Continuity at a Time of Regional Crisis at the Brookings Institution;
- Can Saudi Arabia’s New King Manage a Restive Middle East? At Foreign Policy;
- Talks in Yemen between political parties, rebels break down at the AP.