Shadow Government

King Abdullah’s Passing Brings More Uncertainty to a Troubled Middle East

The southern Gulf is in turmoil, and there is little that Washington can do about it. Even as President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate to all just how deep their mutual disdain runs, Saudi Arabia and Yemen both face uncertain futures, calling into question America’s own position in the Gulf. The ...

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The southern Gulf is in turmoil, and there is little that Washington can do about it. Even as President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate to all just how deep their mutual disdain runs, Saudi Arabia and Yemen both face uncertain futures, calling into question America’s own position in the Gulf.

The late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was more than just the cautious reformer who slowly improved the role of women in conservative Saudi society and expanded educational opportunities for all Saudis. He was also the moving force behind the Arab Peace Initiative, which offered to accept the reality of the State of Israel in the Middle East. This was no small matter. Abdullah’s formal title was the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina — and he was a major religious force in his own right. His support of that Initiative reflected both his courage and his common sense.

Abdullah was a genuine product of the Nejdi desert. He was a truly religious man, and, like all such men, was untainted by the corruption that is the mark of the hypocrite. He never seemed to have fallen sway to the wealth he inherited or the greed that can overwhelm even the truly rich.

Abdullah’s nightmare, indeed the Saudi nightmare, was to be caught between a Shiite pincer emanating from Iran to the northeast and Yemen to the southwest. He was fiercely opposed to the Iranian nuclear program, worried about Iranian influence in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-dominated Eastern Province, and equally concerned about the potential influx of the far more numerous Yemenis across Saudi Arabia’s Najran, Jizan, and Asir provinces.

Abdullah’s apprehension over the Iranian threat paralleled that of Israel. It may have brought Saudi Arabia closer to Israel — though how close is a matter of intense speculation. It certainly did result in deep suspicion of the Obama administration’s intentions regarding a deal with Iran. Here too, the similarity of Saudi concerns about the American president with those of Israel was virtually unprecedented.

No less worrisome for Abdullah was the growing power of the Iranian-backed Houthi in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has a history of conflict with and in Yemen. Saudi Arabia warred with Yemen in the 1930s, and intervened in the Yemeni civil war of the early 1960s. It never came to terms with the leftist government of South Yemen when that country aligned with the Soviets, and conducted military operations against the Houthis in the early years of this century.

The Houthis whose Zaidi Islam religion is a branch of Shiism, were able to seize the Yemeni capital prior to the old king’s passing. They are now King Salman’s nightmare, made even worse by the resignation — on the same day as Abdullah’s passing — of Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, over their inability to reach any serious agreement with the Houthis. Where Yemen goes from here, and what Riyadh might do given the reported infirmities of its new leader is a major cause for concern.

Finally, the rise of the Islamic State only added to the king’s worries. He recognized that the notion that the group would unite the Arab world under the caliphate of Abu Abdullah Al-Rashid Al-Baghdadi ultimately meant the removal of the House of Saud from its custodianship. And he worried about the strength of Washington’s commitment to fight the terrorist group. King Salman now faces the same threats, and bears the same apprehension about Washington’s resolve.

President Obama’s determination to reach an agreement with Iran certainly will do nothing to reassure the skittish Saudis. His preference for drone operations against terrorists may come to little if an increasingly unstable Yemen no longer is willing to host American forces. His contretemps with Netanyahu will further frustrate the Saudis and Emiratis, who figure that if this is how Washington treats what they view as its close ally, they cannot expect to have any better treatment from his Administration. And his halting approach to the fight against the Islamic State will only reinforce all these other fears. Saudi Arabia is an important ally; Washington should be at great pains to ensure that it remain one in the troubled days ahead.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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