Power Transitions in Saudi Arabia Spell Changes in the Middle East

July 3, 2015 Updated: July 3, 2015

WASHINGTON—In less than six months since the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, 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 effects not just on the Middle East but on the international scene.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz has removed Abdullah’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 Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) 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.

The changes introduced by King Salman have brought considerable uncertainty to Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, which has long prized continuity, experience, and risk aversion.

Abdullah 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 U.S. Air Force barracks in Khobar in 1996, for example, Abdullah 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 Abdullah worried would only strengthen Iran’s influence in Iraq. Abdullah outlived two crown princes, Sultan 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 Abdullah died, but then for reasons never explained, removed him and put Mohammad bin Naif (MBN) 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, and without a son as a potential heir.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the King’s favorite son and is now 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, Russia 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 met with François 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 Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to power, Mohammed 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 Abdullah Saleh took power of Yemen in 1978 and ruled as a strongman 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 Shiites 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 in Yemen. 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 later fled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March.

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. Iran already had gained preeminence in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, now a fourth Arab capital was tilting toward Iran. For the Iranians it was a cheap victory—a handful of advisers and diplomatic support to fellow Shiites bogged Saudi Arabia down in a quagmire in Yemen.

Yemen has been a problematic neighbor for Saudi Arabia for decades, and the Saudis have long accused the Houthis of links to Iran.

Saudi Arabia gave Washington only a few-hours advance notice of the war and the king snubbed U.S. President Obama’s invitation to Camp David, Maryland, 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 (GCC) 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 Hadhramaut 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.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz makes his first speech as king following the death of King Abdullah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 23, 2015. (Saudi Press Agency/AP)
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz makes his first speech as king following the death of King Abdullah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 23, 2015. (Saudi Press Agency/AP)

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 Faisal to power in the early 1960s, being 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.” Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal Online and the MacMillan Center at Yale.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.