Can Saudi Arabia’s New King Manage a Restive Middle East?

King Abdullah spent his life trying to keep the Middle East stable. But his successors are now left tending to crises that threaten to overwhelm the oil-rich monarchy.


“We are passing startling days,” Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah declared in February 2012, candidly revealing his astonishment at events across the Middle East.

“We are passing startling days,” Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah declared in February 2012, candidly revealing his astonishment at events across the Middle East.

In the year prior to the king’s statement, the monarch had lost close allies in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi — never trusted by the kingdom — was also gone. Riyadh was pushing for the downfall of another foe, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who was in the midst of an increasingly bloody crackdown on his own citizens. When Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution calling for Assad to leave power, the Saudi king could hold his tongue no more. “[T]he event that took place foretells nothing good,” he predicted.

King Abdullah, who sought nothing more fervently during his reign than stability, lived his final days in one of the modern Middle East’s most turbulent periods. As he would repeat again and again, he found the events that followed the 2011 Arab Spring astonishing, alarming, and unforgivable — none more so than the tragedy of Syria, where he agonized over civilian deaths and lamented Washington’s lukewarm support for the anti-Assad cause.

King Abdullah played an outsized role in trying to shape the Middle East’s many crises, and the question now for the entire region is who will fill his shoes. Just hours before the king’s death, Yemen’s president resigned from office, leaving that country in the de facto control of Shiite Houthi rebels. Islamic State militants may be taking a hit from airstrikes in Iraq, but in Syria they are regrouping and even gaining territory. Tiny Bahrain, dependent on Saudi largesse, is facing a severe budget crisis amid falling oil prices, and local opposition protests are ongoing. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s generous aid is economically vital to keeping discontent at bay.

King Abdullah’s successors also face a struggle with their regional nemesis, Iran, for dominance in the Middle East. Militias allied with Iran are now at odds with nearly every one of Riyadh’s regional clients — from Lebanon to Syria, Iraq to Bahrain to Yemen. Meanwhile, the United States is negotiating what looks to many in the Arab Gulf like a soft détente with Iran that stands to completely recast Washington’s relationship with the region. All bets are off; all power is up for the taking.

King Abdullah was the one man whose voice could still rise above these crises. When he spoke, the region stood to attention. The flood of foreign leaders arriving in Riyadh for his funeral today, Jan. 23 — from the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar to the leaders of Turkey and Pakistan — is a fitting indication of his central role in the Middle East. After a smooth transition, there is a new King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. But the mantle of regional leadership won’t be passed as easily.

* * *

Born to Saudi King Abdulaziz Al Saud and a mother from a prominent Bedouin family, King Abdullah always had an eye toward the rest of the region. His mother’s Shammar tribe stretches across the Levant into Syria and down into Iraq and Kuwait. He was famously emotional — and stubborn — about what he saw as injustices committed against Arabs. As crown prince, Abdullah took every occasion to badger U.S. President George W. Bush about the Palestinian cause: During a visit to the White House in 2004, he carried along with him newspapers and video footage depicting what life was like in the occupied territories. “I wanted to show the president what was going on in Palestine,” then-Crown Prince Abdullah told PBS in 2004. “That’s it.”

When Arab Spring protests broke out in Tunisia and then Egypt, the Saudi king was famously aghast — most of all at how quickly Washington had turned on its decades-long allies. After similar protests broke out on the nearby island of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia led a regional military alliance to crush them. In March 2011, Saudi tanks rolled over the causeway that links the two countries, beginning a months-long crackdown that left the revolution permanently fragmented. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia pushed for a managed Gulf-led transition that essentially kept the organs of government intact, while removing embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

King Abdullah’s reticence for change was based on a long-held view that stability was the guarantor of peace for the kingdom. “His Majesty the king has always made it a clear priority for Saudi to focus on the stability, safety, and security of its people,” Saudi Shura Council member Wafa Taiba told me in 2013.

On Syria, King Abdullah initially sought to achieve the same. After years of on-and-off friendship with the Assads, the two countries normalized relations by the time the first signs of unrest appeared in Syria. King Abdullah tried to reason with Damascus: “In the beginning, he sent countless letters to the Syrian president and sent many officials to meet him and made continuous phone calls to warn him about the gravity and danger of the situation,” King Abdullah’s son Prince Miteb told the Saudi Gazette in a rare media interview in 2013.

Assad, of course, refused to change course — even as the body count in Syria climbed ever higher. His advice spurned, the Saudi monarch turned on the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia kicked out the Syrian ambassador and began arming the opposition. That neither the United States nor the rest of the international community followed Riyadh’s lead on Syria may well have been the king’s greatest disappointment. It was also, he was sure, a disaster for the region, and he used some of his last speeches to make that clear.

“This [international] community is silently ‎observing what is happening in the whole region and is ‎indifferent to what is occurring, as if what is happening does not ‎concern it. This silence has no justification,” he scolded the world in an Aug. 1, 2014, statement. “Is the world not ‎aware that this will lead to the emergence of a generation that ‎believes only in violence, rejects peace, and believes in the ‎clash and not dialogue among civilizations?”

Meanwhile, Washington’s surprise decision in 2013 to open talks with Iran was viewed as a menace to Saudi Arabia’s regional influence, threatening to legitimize Tehran’s ambitions in the region. “I am afraid Iran will give up something on [its nuclear program] to get something else from the big powers in terms of regional politics,” Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Saudi Arabia’s appointed Shura Council, told Reuters in November 2013. “And I’m worrying about giving Iran more space or a freer hand in the region.”

The growing rift between Washington’s and Riyadh’s view of the region inspired King Abdullah to begin going it alone in the Middle East. Without U.S. assistance, Saudi Arabia has in recent months helped spearhead a regional drive some have dubbed a counterrevolution. In Egypt, Riyadh could hardly wait to congratulate Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he launched a coup to overthrow then-President Mohamed Morsi. Together with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia immediately pledged $12 billion to ensure that the new government could pay its bills.

As the conflict in Syria has radicalized, meanwhile, the Saudi government has waged a persistent “we-told-you-so” media campaign to remind the Obama administration that it saw the jihadis coming. Riyadh did so knowing that Washington would need the kingdom to fight back against the Islamic State — and indeed, Obama called the Saudi monarch on Sept. 10, 2014, before publicly laying out his strategy to defeat the terrorist group.

During his final months, the foreign-policy files on King Abdullah’s desk only grew. The kingdom’s jets were flying over Iraq as part of the international coalition striking the Islamic State, and Saudi officials were also cracking down on foreign fighters at home. The United Nations World Food Program ran out of money to feed Syrian refugees, so the Saudi government rushed it a check. The Saudi-backed government in Sanaa, Yamen, fell just this week.

* * *

The question now is who will handle all these escalating disasters. New King Salman is thought to be ailing, so new Crown Prince Muqrin will likely take over many of the responsibilities that hadn’t transferred to him already. The newly appointed deputy crown prince, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, promises to play an equally influential role.

But whichever Saudi leader takes the reins, he will be challenged by the sheer range of foreign-policy challenges and the kingdom’s lack of manpower in tackling them. There has been bitter competition within the Saudi government for control over the most pressing files: The Syria portfolio, for example, was tossed back and forth for two years between the gregarious deal-maker Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

The men had nearly polar opposite strategies. While Prince Bandar was pulled out of retirement to ferry weapons and supplies to the rebels, Prince Mohammed cautiously warned about the risk that Saudi jihadis would personally get involved. He tightened the reins on fundraising and, with his counterterrorism approach, became Washington’s favored man in Riyadh.

The Gulf’s rising regional powers are also likely to fill some of the policy gaps. Qatar took a shot at managing the Arab Spring fallout for three years after 2011, backing rebels in Libya and Syria and an Islamist-led government in Egypt. But Riyadh demonstrably objected what it saw as Doha’s obstinate and foolish behavior; Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors to Qatar last March and promised not to reinstate them until the country played ball. Absent King Abdullah — who was said to have personally chastised the young Qatari emir — Doha may see a chance to try again.

The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, is likely to continue its rise as the most important U.S. regional ally. Dubbed “little Sparta” in Washington, Emirati jets have flown the most sorties in the anti-Islamic State coalition. Its zero-tolerance attitude toward extremism is much closer to U.S. policy than either Saudi or Qatari policy.

Beyond day-to-day affairs, the Saudi king tried several times since 2011 to use his mantle of Islamic leadership to calm tensions. In August 2012, he held an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, where he made a point to sit next to the Iranian president, and warned the audience, “The Islamic nation is currently living in a state of sedition and disunity.”

Yet as he died early on Friday morning, Jan. 23, stability in the region was little more than a distant memory. “[The] feeling of security,” he reminded Saudi citizens in June, “is the greatest blessing and grace.”

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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