The Saudi Succession and its Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy

by Avi Davis

The Saudi Royal Family must be blessing the fact that polygamy has always been practiced so prodigiously in their country.

The ascension to the Saudi throne of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud (79), following the death of his 90 -year- old half brother King Abdullah on Friday, marks the fourth time a son of the Abdul Aziz al Saud, founding patriach of the Saud dynasty, has assumed power following the death of a brother.  Indeed, the fecundity of that first monarch, who had, over time, married close to 40 wives, should be noted for yet a fifth half-brother, Prince Muqrin, now stands in line as heir apparent.

Abdullah had been a capable king, steering his oil rich country into a close cooperative relationship with the United States, offering itself as a mainstay of moderate Arab power in the Persian Gulf.  His cooperation as regent for his ailing half brother Fahd during the first and second Gulf Wars were essential to American victories in Iraq and the kingdom has functioned as an oasis of stability in a time of tumultuous revolutions in the region.

That is not to say the Saudis are the most savory of our allies.  The kingdom, despite recent modernization and reforms by Abdullah, is still a despotic autocracy, ruled largely by personal fiat where sharia law enforcement police roam the streets, women are routinely stoned, journalists whipped and free speech severely repressed.  But the United States does not have the luxury of choosing its allies in the Middle East and the Saudis have generally come through on their commitments despite their trenchant resistance to American styled freedoms and deep seated hypocrisy.

But during the years of the first and second Obama Administrations, the strength of the U.S.- Saudi alliance has been shaken as the Saudis saw  a weak U.S. President buckle on his commitment to oust Iranian backed Bashar al Asad in Syria; an unwillingness to shore up a long term ally such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the seeming intent to appease a belligerent and nuclear seeking regime in Iran.  Since 2011, the Saudis have therefore increasingly set their own course in determining how to confront their most pressing security concerns, even reaching a tacit, if diplomatically discreet agreement their avowed enemy – the State of Israel, in the event of that country’s need to launch a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

A new complication now arises with the collapse of the American leaning government of  President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Yemen.   The coup of the Houthi, who represent an offshoot of Shiite Islam and are closely aligned with Iran, represents a dynamic shift in the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. For now we can speak of a Shiite archipelago in the Gulf with Iran linking with Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Asad Alawites in Syria and Hamas in Gaza.   This situation for the Saudis will be completely intolerable as their Sunni government will become an obvious target of  an emboldened Shiite Iran.

Given the geopolitical layout of the present day Middle East, the Obama Administration is looking increasingly flat footed.  The President’s insistence that the P5 +1  negotiations with Iran in Geneva must be allowed to run their course, without the imposition of any further pressure on the Iranians by way of increased sanctions, has infuriated U.S. allies in the region – which includes Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The recent decision of the Obama Administration to ignore Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States in early March only seems to fit an eerie pattern of nonchalance regarding the Iranian threat.  It leaves us with the most incomprehensible of scenarios:  the U.S. paying court to our country’s avowed enemy – a regime which has notoriously financed or else perpetrated the continuous murder of American servicemen and civilians for over 30 years  – while ignoring and snubbing those who are its most reliable supporters in the region.


The new king, the frail Prince Salman Ibn Abdulaziz is now presented with a troubling dilemma.  Without the guarantee of U.S. backing the Saudis will almost certainly need to strengthen cooperation with the more moderate Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan while firming up its  relations with the State of Israel. It make look even further abroad  to China for superpower protection.   This should not exclude a likely decision to begin to construct its own nuclear facilities, leading to an arms race which cannot have a happy ending.   Such developments could leave the United States out in the cold as its policy of engagement with the Iranians falters and then collapses.

The other element which could play a decisive role in determining relations in the region is that of oil. As the price of oil has tumbled below $50 a barrel – and looks likely to go even lower – the Saudis and OPEC have defiantly refused to pull back on their own production levels which has in turn contributed to a world wide oil glut and driven prices down even further.  This has caused  many of the new U.S. shale oil producers to scale down production with an accompanying painful reduction in their profits.

But the Saudis should not be able to have it both ways.  They cannot strangle the U.S. oil producers while demanding U.S. protection from an aggressive Iran.  Here savvy statecraft on the part of the Obama Administration could have played to the U.S.’ advantage – forcing the Saudis to scale back their oil production in exchange for a tougher stance towards the Mullahs. Unfortunately that may beyond the abilities of this Administration and this President whose own linear thinking rarely takes into account the variability in relations between states.

Committed to one course of action, Barack Obama is unlikely to switch gears mid-course.  But that, unfortunately, may portend a crash which could take with it an alliance that successive U.S. administrations over 70 years have fought determinedly to maintain.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of  The Intermediate Zone


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