The regional impacts of Saudi succession

When it comes to Saudi foreign policy, the forthcoming succession is not the most crucial – the one to follow is.

Little change can be expected from the Saudi Arabian foreign policy, regardless of who the king is [Reuters]

With the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, questions are being raised about the impact of Saudi succession on the Middle East, particularly with regards to Syria and Iran. Saudi Arabia has always been a prominent political and economic actor in the region.

Being an absolute monarchy, its domestic and foreign policies have always been centralised around the figure of the king. Any change in leadership, therefore, carries the potential for a change in direction for the kingdom.

But this is less likely in the near future.

Since assuming his role in 2005, King Abdullah has led an activist foreign policy for the kingdom, resurrecting Saudi engagement in the affairs of other Arab states and standing up to an increasingly influential Iran. The former crown prince, and now king, is Abdullah’s half-brother Salman, who is much more conservative than his sibling and who is one of the “Sudairi seven” – half-brothers of the king whom he has sought to weaken politically in his bid to consolidate power within his own descendants.

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Suffering from poor health, Salman’s prospects for leading Saudi Arabia have been slim, and gave an opportunity for Abdullah to appoint his younger half-brother Muqrin – widely seen as a neutral candidate – as deputy crown prince, and to give his own son Prince Miteb bin Abdullah greater foreign and domestic policy roles through appointing him as the minister of the National Guard in May 2013.

While it could have been possible for succession to go straight to Murqin instead of Salman because of the latter’s health – which would bolster Miteb’s chances of becoming crown prince – Salman garnered support from his fellow Sudairi descendants, who would likely have insisted on his assumption of the title of king as that would give them access to power.

The impact of this rivalry on Saudi policies towards the region is not entirely certain; however, there are factors suggesting that a radical change in Saudi foreign policy in the coming period is unlikely.

This Sudairi-Abdullah rivalry is likely to eventually play out between the two prominent members of the next generation – Miteb, Abdullah’s son, and Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, the Minister of Interior and now the new deputy crown prince – to whom King Abdullah handed over the Syrian file in 2014 following the failure of the Syria strategy followed by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, which was focused on supporting jihadists in a bid to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.

The impact of this rivalry on Saudi policies towards the region is not entirely certain; however, there are factors suggesting that a radical change in Saudi foreign policy in the coming period is unlikely.

First, while Miteb and bin Nayef may have different levels of support domestically (with the latter being more popular than the former), they are in the same foreign policy camp. The roles of both princes in handling the Syria file has led to increased support for the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front within Syria at the expense of supporting the Syrian National Coalition abroad.

This recent change of direction is likely to yield more results for Saudi Arabia than previous endeavours by Prince Bandar. A Saudi solution for Syria, therefore, means having in place a transitional government that is both credible on the ground and that is responsive to Saudi interests.

Both Miteb and bin Nayef have been courting the United States to get support for this, which signals a continuation of this strategy under either Salman or Muqrin.

As bin Nayef has spearheaded Saudi Arabia’s counter-radicalisation programmes as well as having taken over the Syria file, the terrorist challenge for the kingdom as a result of the thousands of Saudis fighting in Syria today will bolster the bin Nayef camp. But as Saudi Arabia faces a real threat from its support of global jihadism, the focus on counter-radicalisation is likely to continue.

Second, external circumstances affect Saudi policy in a way that supersedes the princes’ own preferences. Despite its mistrust of Tehran, Saudi Arabia has learned that Iran’s influence in the region is a reality that cannot be easily undone.

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This has led the kingdom to act pragmatically in Iraq and Yemen, where it supported the Iranian-blessed change of government in the first, and kept communication channels open with Iran’s Houthi allies in the second.

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria as a common enemy for Saudi Arabia and Iran is likely to continue to push Riyadh to reach some form of compromise with Tehran further down the line, which would have a calming impact on countries like Lebanon, where the current political stalemate is a byproduct of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

The forthcoming succession in Saudi Arabia is not the most crucial – the one to follow is. This means that for the period ahead, more of the same can be expected from Saudi Arabian foreign policy. 

Source: Al Jazeera