The King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, had suffered from a bout of pneumonia. Although his health has been deteriorating for a number of years, leading him to reduce his workload, the 90-year-old chain-smoking monarch retained such gravitas and influence that no matter how prepared the family is for his passing, Saudi Arabia will feel his loss acutely.
A hugely popular figure even among those Saudis who do not feel strong affinity for the monarchy, he will leave a gap that most likely cannot be filled.
To rule in Saudi Arabia is not just a matter of being a good manager of government and ensuring oil keeps pumping out of the ground. It is a complex and difficult task that involves managing a wide spectrum of interests and constituencies across a vast territory, many of whom directly contradict each other.
Saudis often talk of change having to occur slowly, this is not just an excuse to bat away those pushing for reform, it is a genuine reflection of the need to balance the competing interests and constituencies in the country. All of whom must be placated in order for Saudi Arabia to progress forward stably.
|King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia dies|
Understanding this balance is what Abdullah was particularly good at – even in his older years, his knowledge of his own people was remarkably astute.
A man who knew reforms for women’s participation must come, he ruthlessly removed conservative clerics who stood in his way, all the while ensuring not to undermine the institution of the clerical establishment and the religious police, whom many conservative Saudis hold in great esteem.
Likewise, with the kingdom’s restive Shia population, the king and his half-brother and former Crown Prince Nayef pursued a policy of dialogue-led engagement and force.
In November 2014, the Saudi state was quick to act against an al-Qaeda affiliated group that had launched attacks on a Shia Hussainiyah, a religious building, in Saudi’s Eastern Province. Although tensions between the state and its Shia population remain high, it was an encouraging sign.
At times the king has cut a lonely figure – never fully connected to his half brothers. His rise to power was as much due to force of personality and guile, resisting attempts to emasculate his position as Commander of the National Guard, as it was his abilities in politics.
It was often his sheer force of personality that ensured large modernisation projects, such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or the instigation of a number of economic cities were pushed forward.
Old versus young
On issues of foreign policy the older generation of princes tend to be cut from similar cloth, Iran is perennially viewed with suspicion, and its desire to expand at the expense of Saudi interests is almost a given. With or without Abdullah, the Saudi position vis-a-vis Tehran will not soften, because the underlying assumptions which govern the bi-lateral relationship have not changed in decades.
Likewise, despite friction with the United States on a number of issues ranging from clandestine talks with Iran, to the failure to make peace between Israel and Palestine, the kingdom will have to maintain its ties come what may, and no matter who leads either country.
The soured relationship at present is far more a product of circumstance than it is any particular personality clash between US President Barack Obama and the Saudi king.
As such, Abdullah’s departure from the scene is unlikely to radically alter the way that the kingdom sees its position in the region, and indeed the world.
Riyadh’s elites have had to come to terms with the thing they fear most – instability – becoming a permanent feature of their neighbourhood. It is unsettling and has moved the country towards a more aggressive activist posture; something which Saudi Arabia has always been hesitant to do.
Despite friction with the United States on a number of issues ranging from clandestine talks with Iran, to the failure to make peace between Israel and Palestine, the kingdom will have to maintain its ties come what may, and no matter who leads either country.
Nevertheless, be it in the realm of military interventions in Bahrain or Yemen, or playing around with oil prices to defend market share and hurt regional competitors, the kingdom is flexing its muscles in a way that has not been seen since the days of King Faisal.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), however, poses a particularly difficult conundrum. It seeks to undermine the most fundamental pillar upon which the al-Saud’s rule rests; its Islamic legitimacy to govern the land of the prophet and act as the custodian of the two holy mosques.
That the kingdom is not safe from ISIL’s retribution was illustrated on January 5, when two Saudi border guards along with their commander were killed in a combined suicide and shooting attack that bore all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda-ISIL backing.
It is clear that for the al-Saud, there can be no compromise in dealing with the organisation until they are destroyed. This is an uncomfortable policy for the ruling house, who must manage the tension between taking on an entity which seeks to unseat it, while also understanding that sympathy for ISIL among Saudi’s citizenry is not uncommon.
The fact, for instance, that ISIL is said to be using adapted versions of Saudi text books in its schools, and much of its hardline anti-Shia outlook is stirred by firebrand clerics in the kingdom illustrates the complexity of the relationship between the kingdom and would-be caliphate.
Lastly, in its relations with the GCC, the kingdom has always maintained an overbearing role, which is largely why the smaller Gulf countries with the exception of Bahrain, eschew further integration with it. Demography and geography ensure that Saudi will still play this role in its own neighbourhood, largely steering the GCC towards a hawkish line on Iran, while attempting to collectivise security, economy and foreign policy postures.
But with regard to bringing Qatar back into the fold, it has been Abdullah, in particular, that has pushed forward the agenda. Without Abdullah, the possibility of fully mending intra-GCC ties, for example by brokering a reconciliation between Qatar and the Sisi government in Egypt, hangs more finely in the balance.
Can Saudi Arabia manage the turbulent changes in the region without its king? Yes, of course, the family have plenty of capable princes, well-educated thinkers and capable technocrats. As such the kingdom’s new-found assertiveness is unlikely to end. While the region is unstable, Saudi Arabia will be looking to see in what ways it can assert its own interests.
Domestically the recent influx of a number of younger princes into the cabinet, which Abdullah has personally overseen, has gone some way to alleviating the concerns of many Saudis that vacuums of governance will open up as the older generation of princes relinquish their grip on power.
What the kingdom loses however is a figurehead that is close to irreplaceable. There are certain intangible qualities that make a statesman; strength, cunning, fearlessness, and a deep understanding of your own domestic political scene, all of which Abdullah bin Abdulaziz possessed in abundance.
Saudi Arabia without his leadership will still be a great power in the region, if not the great power in the region, but it will not be the same without him.
Michael Stephens is the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, Qatar.