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King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz will be remembered for his relatively reformist mindset and bold foreign policy initiatives. But the Saudi leader’s passing will have little to no impact on the Kingdom’s future, especially given the set of increasingly difficult challenges the country will have to face at home and abroad.
Leadership matters, especially in the Middle East, where institutions are weak and often nonexistent. But charisma and talent, on their own, won’t be enough to dig Saudi Arabia out of the profound generational problems that go beyond Abdullah, his successor Salman, or any leader who will preside over the Kingdom. Diversifying the economy, reducing unemployment, practicing good governance, further empowering women, combating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), checking Iran’s advances, improving relations with Washington, stabilizing Yemen, and leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—to name just a few—will require team work.
Abdullah didn’t try it alone, neither will the new king. If Salman is hoping for good results, he, with the help of his youngest brother, Prince Muqrin, whom Salman immediately appointed as the new crown prince, will have to create and manage a team of younger and more effective professionals who are in tune with the latest regional and global trends and know something or two about the demands of the twenty-first century. That, ultimately, is Salman’s biggest responsibility. He is already 79 and not in the best condition (rumors of dementia are unproven but he does have other health issues), so he should use what could be a relatively short stint in office to lay the groundwork for the next generation of Saudi leadership. Even though Salman has barely spent 48 hours in his new position, he is indeed Saudi Arabia’s past, not its future.
After all, although it was delivered via Twitter, one of Salman’s first messages was that he would honor the economic policies of his predecessor. Salman is thought to be a reformer himself, having fought corruption during his effective five-decade governorship of Riyadh. But his apparent willingness to respect the status quo, although perhaps reassuring for some, is disappointing for many liberal-minded Saudis who think that Abdullah did not go far enough in his reform policies, and thus hope for Salman to do more. He probably won’t, however, for the same reasons that Abdullah couldn’t: To preserve stability, the king has to ensure harmony within the royal family, whose members reportedly have competing interests; he has to refrain from upsetting or alienating the ultra-conservative clergy who have tremendous influence over politics; and he has to guard against the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups that constantly challenge the legitimacy of the House of Saud. There are few ways to balance all these demands, and Salman is likely to settle on the same ones as Abdullah.
It is in foreign affairs and national security where Salman will arguably face the toughest challenges. Here, Abdullah’s rule left a lot to be desired, although it isn’t clear that anyone else would have handled the real external challenges he faced much better.
It is reasonable to posit that Saudi Arabia is losing the regional competition with its archrival, Iran. In Syria, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his opponents—various jihadists including ISIS fighters and secular Syrian rebels—continue to battle, Iran seems to have the upper hand (Assad’s regime has survived) and Saudi Arabia’s interests are increasingly at risk. In fact, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Saudi Arabia’s fortunes in that war could improve anytime soon, because its allies—a collection of secular and Islamist rebels who presumably are not part of ISIS—are the weakest on the battlefield. Things could change should Western powers adopt a more aggressive stance toward Assad, but there are no signs that the United States, the leader of the anti-ISIS international coalition, is ready to do so.
In Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, things are not much better for the Saudis. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi has somewhat improved the status of Sunnis in Iraq’s government to reassure the Saudis, but the strategic levers of power remain in the hands of Iraqi politicians who are under the influence of Iran. Iran’s friends in Yemen, the Houthis, are also on the march, threatening the security of Saudi Arabia and the stability of the entire Arab Gulf region. In Lebanon, Hezbollah might be militarily overtaxed and on the political defensive due to the burden of the Syrian conflict, where thousands of its fighters are aiding Assad’s forces, but the Iranian proxy is still dominant in Beirut. The Palestinian militant group Hamas has returned to the Iran-led “axis of resistance,” despite attempts by Saudi Arabia to keep the group in its and Egypt’s strategic orbit.
Abdullah was highly respected in the region and especially among his Arab Gulf neighbors. Even the Israeli president had a few nice words to say about him. But under his rule, the Kingdom failed to provide effective leadership of the GCC. Qatar has recently reconciled with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, after a disagreement over Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, but that a political feud of that magnitude happened in the first place shows how volatile politics in the GCC are. And in many ways, that’s on Saudi Arabia, the biggest and most influential member of the political group, which has been unable to rally the troops around a political union. It is one thing for the other GCC members not to upset the Saudi king, but quite another for them to actually follow his lead.
Salman will also inherit a shaky relationship with Washington. U.S. President Barack Obama claims that he had a good relationship with Abdullah. That may be true, but it certainly was not as good as that between the Saudi king and George W. Bush. In fairness to Obama, the world has changed considerably since the Bush administration, and the Middle East has experienced chaos of historic proportions, causing U.S. priorities to change. The United States and Saudi Arabia don’t agree on Syria, and the perception in Riyadh (and in other Arab Gulf capitals) is that Washington is about to make an imperfect nuclear deal with Tehran that will leave everybody who is not an ally of Iran worse off.
Abdullah’s shortcomings notwithstanding, and knowing the nature of the Kingdom’s traditional society, Wahhabi ideology, and mysterious politics, he was a better leader for Saudi Arabia and the region than some of his predecessors. He did the best he could to open up and modernize his country, and he boldly and historically proposed peace with Israel in return for the latter returning territory it occupied in the 1967 war. Some say that he was a true reformer trapped in a conservative system, but that would be a stretch. Salman will have to not only preserve Abdullah’s relative successes but also reverse the failures, and those are not few. It is only with a new cadre in Riyadh and a fresh look to the future that the new king will be able to triumph.