Power Transitions in Saudi Arabia Spell Changes in the Middle East
Power Transitions in Saudi Arabia Spell Changes in the Middle East
WASHINGTON: In less than six months since the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdallah, the new king has made changes in the kingdom’s leadership. The changes have introduced considerable uncertainty in an absolute monarchy that has long prized continuity, experience and risk aversion. The success or failure of the new policies would have profound effect not just on the Middle East but on the international scene.
King Salman bin Abdul Aziz has removed Abdallah’s choice for crown prince in favor of a younger prince, replaced the world’s longest serving foreign minister, streamlined decision making, and created two powerful committees to oversee defense and economic issues. He also promoted his 29-year-old son to be minister of defense and gave Prince Muhammad bin Salman command of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The changes mark a historic shift in power from the generation of princes who took the kingdom from a desolate, poor and isolated outback in the Arabian Peninsula, transforming it into a global energy giant and most powerful state in the Arab world, to a new royal generation that has grown up with incredible wealth.
Abdallah ruled the kingdom for 20 years, first as crown prince after his brother Fahd had a debilitating stroke in 1995 and then as king when Fahd passed away. He was a cautious reformer by Saudi standards who pursued a risk-averse foreign policy. When Iran sponsored a terrorist attack on US Air Force barracks in Khobar in 1996, for example, Abdallah was careful not to let the attack escalate into a war with Iran. He managed the difficult days after the 9/11 attacks , when the US-Saudi relationship was at risk of unraveling after reports that 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis – then quietly opposed President George Bush’s war in Iraq, which Abdallah worried would only strengthen Iran’s influence in Iraq. Abdallah outlived two crown princes, Sultaan and Nayef, and had appointed his half-brother Prince Muqrin to be third in line behind Salman.
Salman initially put Muqrin in the crown prince’s position when Abdallah died, but then for reasons never explained removed him and put Muhammad bin Nayef in the job. MBN would become the first of his generation to succeed to the throne. At 55, he is known for resisting Al Qaeda’s attempt to overthrow the House of Saud from 2003 to 2006. He is also the father of two daughters, without a son as a potential heir.
Prince Muhammad bin Salman is the King’s favorite son and is now both defense minister, third in the line of succession after MBN and chairman of a committee that runs all economic and development issues in the kingdom, including overseeing the energy sector. The king has sent him to St. Petersburg and Paris: In Russia he met with Vladimir Putin and agreed on increased cooperation on nuclear technology, space, and oil issues although details were sparse. In Paris he meet with Francois Hollande to discuss regional issues. Neither Putin nor Hollande has any influence in Yemen, however, which is the prince’s biggest problem.
Educated in the kingdom, with no experience in military affairs or the oil business, MBS is the face of the war in Yemen. From the day the Saudis announced they were initiating Operation Decisive Storm to restore President Abu Rabbuh Hadi to power, Muhammad has been a constant feature in the Saudi media directing the war effort, rallying foreign support, and meeting with his generals to show his hands-on approach. Popular songs have lauded his military genius, and his picture is displayed alongside those of his father and MBN throughout the Kingdom.
Yemen has been a problematic neighbor for Saudi Arabia for decades. King Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, fought a short war with Yemen in 1934 seizing several disputed border regions and incorporating them into Saudi Arabia. After a revolutionary coup backed by Egypt in 1962 that overthrew the Yemeni monarchy, Saudi Arabia backed royalist rebels against the Egyptians. General Ali Abdallah Saleh took power in 1978 and ruled as strong man until the Arab Spring protests in 2011. The Saudis tried to oust him in a civil war in 1995 after he had backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War in 1991.
The Saudis fought several small border conflicts with the rebel group called the Houthis between 2009 and 2011.The Houthis are Zaydi Shia who opposed Saleh then and sought greater autonomy for themselves in northern Yemen along the Saudi border. The Houthis outfought both the Saudis and Saleh’s army in these conflicts. When the Arab Spring brought a massive popular movement to oust Saleh, the Saudis pressed him to turn power over to then Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi whom the Saudis assumed they could control. Last year the Houthis and Saleh turned against Hadi, making their own alliance to take power. Assisted by pro-Saleh loyalists in the army, the Houthis took Sanaa in September 2014, then the major Red Sea port of Hodeida and by February were marching on the southern port of Aden, the last stronghold for Hadi who fled to Riyadh.
The Saudis had long accused the Houthis of links to Iran – when they took Sanaa, Houthis opened direct air flights to Tehran, offered Iran port facilities in Hodeida and agreed to a lucrative oil deal. For the new king and his ambitious son, Iran was acquiring too much influence in Saudi Arabia’s soft southwest underbelly. Tehran already had gained preeminence in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, now a fourth Arab capital was tilting toward Tehran. For the Iranians it was a cheap victory – a handful of advisors and diplomatic support to fellow Shia bogged Saudi Arabia down in a quagmire in Yemen.
Riyadh gave Washington only a few hours advance notice of the war and the king snubbed US President Obama’s invitation to Camp David, sending MBN and MBS instead. The Saudis suspect that Washington is obsessed with getting a nuclear deal with Iran and pays too little attention to Iranian subversion. Nonetheless, the United States is providing logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi war campaign.
King Salman rallied Saudi Arabia’s traditional allies behind the war. Gulf Cooperation Council members, except Oman, joined the war effort as did fellow monarchies Jordan and Morocco. Egypt, which depends heavily on Saudi and GCC subsidies, joined the naval blockade of Yemen. Pakistan, a long-time Saudi ally, refused to supply combat-tested ground troops. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif turned the issue over to the Pakistani parliament which unanimously voted not to send the army to fight in Yemen.
Without Pakistani ground troops, Operation Decisive Storm was anything but decisive. The Saudis have settled in for a stalemate. The Saudis control the air and sea, the Houthis and Saleh control most of Yemen’s cities. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken control of Yemen’s far-east Hadramaut province where a drone killed its leader this month. The United Nations has tried to broker a ceasefire, bringing the parties together in Geneva for talks that failed to solve the underlying clash for power. Meanwhile, the Yemeni people are facing a humanitarian disaster due to the Saudi blockade which keeps out food, oil and other essential supplies.
The Yemeni war has become the defining issue of Salman’s young tenure in office and especially of his young son. The king needs to show results but so far has none. Saudis have rallied behind the flag publicly, but in private there are growing doubts about his judgment and his protégé. A generation of Yemenis will grow up remembering the bombing of their country and a brutal blockade. They will want revenge.
In 1964, the royal family and clerical establishment deposed then King Saud after losing confidence in his leadership in fighting the Egyptians in Yemen. King Salman was one of the beneficiaries of the rise of King Faysal to power in the early 1960s, appointed Governor of Riyadh where he spent the next 50 years. It will be deeply ironic if Yemen is the source of another king’s fall from grace.
Bruce Riedel is senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, part of Brookings’ new Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. In addition, Riedel serves as a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy. He retired in 2006 after 30 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is the author of Avoiding Armageddon: America, India and Pakistan to the Brink and Back and Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad. Click here to read an excerpt.