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.
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. 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 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. 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. His advice for talks spurned by Assad, the Saudi monarch turned on the Assad regime.
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. 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.
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. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, is likely to continue its rise as the most important US regional ally. Its zero-tolerance attitude toward extremism is much closer to U.S. policy than either Saudi or Qatari policy.