DENVER – As with all political successions, Saudi Arabia’s was inevitable. But it was not inevitable that King Abdullah’s demise – and the emergence of Crown Prince Salman as his heir to the throne – should come at a time of peak instability in a region already buffeted by the type of change that the House of Saud welcomes least of all.
Consider Saudi Arabia’s current security predicament. Twelve years of unrelenting churn in neighboring Iraq is beginning to take a toll on the Kingdom. Indeed, though the sources of Saudi resentment toward the United States are many – support for Israel, negotiations with Iran, pressure on human rights – none is more important than the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In the Saudis’ narrative, the US created the Arab world’s first Shia-led state – and thus a lasting security nightmare – directly on their northern border. Whatever ultimately happens in Iraq’s western and northern regions, much of which are now under the control of the Sunni Islamic State, southern and eastern Iraq will remain Shia. Thus, Shia success there – a relative concept, to be sure – risks inspiring Shia elsewhere to mobilize politically, including in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-majority Eastern Province, where much of the country’s oil wealth is concentrated.
Then there is the Islamic State and its effort to establish a caliphate – a goal that not only implies dragging the Arab world back to the seventh century, but that also takes dead aim at many of the region’s modern borders. The Sykes-Picot line, agreed in secret by the British and the French in 1916, is now in its 99th year and remains the Syria-Iraq border.
But creating a caliphate in Syria and Iraq is probably the least of the Islamic State’s historic aims. By all accounts, one of the group’s ultimate goals is stewardship of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That may well be a bridge too far, but such maximalist demands hardly assuage the Saudis’ anxiety about the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, on the Kingdom’s southern border, Saudi leaders now face a very dangerous and uncertain situation in Yemen, the region’s weakest state, where Al Qaeda elements continue to require international attention. Yemen’s governing structures are most accurately described as tribal affiliations and alliances, with a minimal consensus holding the country together. Following the overthrow of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government by northern Houthi rebels, who now occupy the capital, Sana’a, that consensus has collapsed.
The Houthis – and their leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi – are often described in the West as an “Iran-backed” group, a proxy description of the Houthis’ most politically salient characteristic: their adherence to Zaidism, a branch of Shia Islam. In fact, the Houthis had previously joined with Sunni tribes in the south of the country to help spark Yemen’s Arab Spring (a quaint – and not particularly accurate – description of the insurgency that led to the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in 2011).
But, though the Houthis’ effort to consolidate political control is far more complex than a sectarian narrative would suggest, for the Saudis it represents yet another frightening emergence of Shia power on their borders. Yemen’s location, along the critical shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden, makes the country a strategic priority for everybody, but especially for the Saudis.
The question now is whether Saudi Arabia’s new leadership can cope with all of the pressing challenges in its near abroad. Indeed, though Saudi Arabia’s institutional structures certainly will maintain considerable continuity, some would describe this apparent stability as stagnation.
As conflicted as many Americans are about their country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, this is no time to contemplate overhauling it, or to otherwise press for “change” in the Kingdom, as much as that may be needed. It is a time when the US needs to work closely with the Saudis, be careful what it asks of them, and be sure that its policy toward them does not overload the region’s strategic circuits.
In particular, whereas the Saudis view Iran as the main source of the regional crisis, the US is engaged in the most sensitive negotiations with the Iranians since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A successful conclusion to the talks over Iran’s nuclear program will be a Pyrrhic victory, though, if the result is more anxiety in the Kingdom.
Obviously, US President Barack Obama’s administration is right to make restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions a high priority. But that effort must be accompanied by a similar focus on holding the Saudis close, as Obama’s recent visit (in which he wisely included many Republicans) to meet King Salman suggested. Likewise, defeating the Islamic State – another appropriately major US goal – requires heavy doses of diplomacy with the Saudis.
That diplomacy must be closely managed and requires setting realistic goals and expectations. Any other approach will merely fuel further regional turmoil.
Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.