Saudi Arabia: New King Crowned in the Eye of the Storm (Israel Defense)

The King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz al Saud, passed away on January 22, 2015 at the age of 90. The King’s funeral was held on the following day and even before the funeral, the Saudi palace hastened to announce the King’s successor – 79 year old Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, King Abdullah’s half-brother, who also served as the country’s Minister of Defense.
King Abdullah was the sixth king of Saudi Arabia. He was crowned on August 1, 2005, following the death of his half-brother, King Fahd. King Abdullah was regarded as a reformist, but also as a monarch attentive to domestic voices in one of the world’s most conservative countries. Since his ascent to the throne, King Abdullah promoted reforms in religious, educational and legal institutions, with the intention of liberating the Kingdom – however slightly – from the influence of the Wahhabi religious establishment, considered one of the most conservative in Sunni Islam. King Abdullah had four wives, seven sons and fifteen daughters.
The Saudi King’s health deteriorated gradually over the last few years. He had two operations in the USA in 2010 for slipped discs, and required long periods of recuperation during which he stayed away from his country. In 2011 and 2012 he had two additional operations in his spine, this time in his own country.
The announcement of the King’s death came a few weeks after the Saudi news agency announced that the King had been diagnosed with pneumonia and was hospitalized. King Abdullah, who was fully aware of his health situation, had addressed his own inheritance arrangements, among other things, over the course of the last year.
King Abdullah will be remembered as a loyal ally of the West who contributed to the enhanced defense cooperation with the USA and to the significant improvement in the relations between the two countries. This was reflected in the announcement by US President Barack Obama, the first world leader who publicly expressed his condolences following the death of the Saudi King.
A New Era for the Monarchy
79 year old Salman Bin Abdulaziz, formerly the Saudi Crown Prince, has been crowned as the new King of Saudi Arabia. King Salman, who in recent years served as the Kingdom’s Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, ascended the throne pursuant to the death of King Abdullah, but in effect he has been conducting the affairs of the state in recent years, owing to his brother’s deteriorating health. Pursuant to his crowning, King Salman’s 69 year old half-brother Muqrin was named the new Crown Prince.
Salman had been appointed as Governor of the Capital Riyadh when he was 20 years old. During his term as Governor, the Capitol was transformed from a desert town into a modern city. Salman is known for his good connections with the chiefs of the local tribes. According to reports of uncertain reliability, Salman is also unwell and has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years, which led to dementia, but these reports were strongly denied in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, in 2011 King Salman had suffered a stroke, which affected his ability to use his left arm ever since.
The Challenges Facing King Salman
The death of King Abdullah has been a shock not just for Saudi Arabia but for the entire Middle East, which has been unstable since 2011. The new King of Saudi Arabia will be required to deal with a series of severe, complex challenges, as outlined below.
The ISIS threat: ISIS terrorists are deployed in Iraq, along the border with Saudi Arabia, and have recently attacked a Saudi position for the first time, killing four Saudi nationals, including a senior commander of the Saudi Border Guard. Additionally, ISIS announced that they regard Saudi Arabia as their next objective and that they intend to dominate the holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is an active partner of the anti-ISIS coalition headed by the USA, and since early January 2015, has embarked on a massive project of erecting a 900 km long complex obstacle system intended to protect the border with Iraq against infiltration by the ISIS terrorists. Saudi Arabia has reinforced its OrBat along the border with Iraq by deploying 30,000 additional troops.
The Iranian nuclear program:the countries of the moderate Arab camp, headed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are just as apprehensive as Israel about the agreement between the superpowers and Iran that would allow Iran to become a “nuclear threshold state” and a major power in the Middle East. Admittedly, the USA has announced repeatedly that the sanctions will not be lifted or alleviated until Iran has actually proven that it had complied with the terms, but Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to have lost faith in the US government. The Saudis are concerned about the fact that the USA ignores the threat such an agreement could present to the status of Saudi Arabia within the Arab world.
The Shi’ite threat from Yemen: the recent domination of Sanaa, capital of Yemen by the Shi’ite Houthi rebels supported by Iran and the expansion of the rebels’ domination into additional areas of the Yemen constitute a threat to the vital interests of Saudi Arabia and a significant accomplishment for Iran, which encircles Saudi Arabia using the Shi’ite Iraqi government to the north and the Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen to the south.
The al-Qaeda threat: al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, whose infrastructures are located in the Yemen primarily, is regarded as the most dangerous organ of the global al-Qaeda. As far as this organization is concerned, Saudi Arabia and the Saudi monarchy, which cooperates with the USA in the confrontation against the organization, constitute a priority objective. In the past, al-Qaeda carried out severe terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.
The oil price crisis: Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s leading exporters of oil, possesses 16% of the world’s oil reserves. King Salman will have to deal with the dropping oil prices, among other things. Saudi Arabia heads OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and, for the time being, insists on maintaining its daily oil production capacity, despite the steep drop in proceeds from exported oil. In early January 2015, the price of an oil barrel dropped below the US$ 50 mark and has not recovered since. Saudi Arabia has massive foreign currency reserves that guarantee its economic breathing space but since oil is the primary source of revenue for this country, a prolonged oil price crisis could endanger Saudi Arabia’s economic stability.
Maintaining internal stability: the Saudi monarchy has many opponents domestically, and local stability is maintained, to a considerable extent, owing to the generous subsidizing of most of the services provided by the state. An economic crisis pursuant to an on-going drop in oil prices could adversely affect the state’s ability to continue subsidizing its services, which, in turn, could undermine internal stability. It should be noted that last year, for the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia presented a budget deficit.
Saudi-Israeli relations: one of the public manifestations of the relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is the “Arab Peace Initiative” presented by King Abdullah in the year 2002. The Saudi Peace Initiative came into the world in February 2002, pursuant to an interview granted by the Saudi Crown Prince, Prince Abdulla Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, to American journalist Thomas Friedman. Friedman listed the highlights of the peace initiative in his column in “The New York Times”, and it was subsequently consolidated into a statement of principles which was intended to draw the route toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and full normalization between the peoples of the region.
On March 28, 2002, the Saudi peace initiative was presented to the Arab League Summit in Beirut by the Crown Prince and de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdullah. Many Arab leaders avoided this summit – each one had its own reasons for not attending. The conference itself was one of the most tumultuous in Arab League history and almost ended in a riot. Eventually, the initiative was unanimously adopted by the 22 members of the League, and became “The Arab Peace Initiative”. At the very last moment, pursuant to the pressures exerted by the Syrians and Lebanese, a clause addressing the Palestinians’ right of return and opposing the settlement of Palestinian refugees in their present locations was added to the initiative. This addition, which Israel totally rejects, is currently the primary bone of contention.
According to foreign sources, the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program has led, over the last decade, to a quiet tightening of relations between the two states. Similarly, Israeli sources estimate that the new king will maintain his predecessor’s policy.
King Salman is not expected to dramatically change the foreign and defense policy of the Saudi Kingdom, as even prior to his ascent to the throne, he was one of the primary decision makers in Saudi Arabia since he had been named Crown Prince in 2012. With regard to Israel, the new king is expected to press on with the policy maintained by Saudi Arabia in the last two years – adherence to the Arab Peace Initiative and the understanding that Israel is an important element in the struggle against the radical Sunni axis and the Shi’ite axis.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and the moderate Arab countries share numerous interests, including the aspiration for geo-political stability in the Middle East, the joint confrontation with radical Islamist (Jihadist-Salafist) terrorism and with Iran, which strives to achieve nuclear arms, and the regional hegemony and regional economic development challenges. Israeli acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative, without waiving Israel’s vital interests, and a comprehensive peace agreement with the Arab world could open a new and promising chapter in the history of the State of Israel.
Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay is the former deputy head of the Israel National Security Council, and former head of the IDF military history department. He is a senior research fellow at the International Policy Institute for counter Terrorism (ICT) located within the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel