The death of Saudi King Abdullah, ruler of his country for nearly ten years and de facto boss for nearly twenty, is for Americans an uncomfortable reminder that one of our chief allies in the most dangerous part of the world is a theocratic petro-state that practices savage repression at home and spends a considerable portion of its wealth promoting a Salafist brand of Islam abroad.
And now the whole world will watch to see if this atavistic regime can, as expected, negotiate a transition of power to Abdullah’s brother, Crown Prince Salman, with ultimate power still grounded in a vast royal family and alliances with tribesmen and Wahhabi clerics.
At the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib and Jay Soloman, pretty clearly channeling mideast policy warhorse Dennis Ross, predict an initial period of deliberate stability and caution for the new/old regime in the months just ahead. That probably means no immediate change in Saudi Arabia’s current strategy of forcing down world oil prices to protect its market share, which has been a great boon to the economy of the U.S. and a deadly blow to Putin’s Russia. And it may also mean a renewed focus on dealing with potential internal dissent in the Kingdom and Shia gains on its borders (e.g., in Yemen).
But it will also be difficult for Americans to grasp the internal workings of a regime that so regularly mixed modern and medieval approaches to statecraft. A brief passage at the end of the New York Times‘ obituary for Abdullah was illustrative:
Abdullah may have resembled his warrior father, but he had a modern sensibility. A diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010 said that he had suggested to an American counterterrorism official that electronic chips be implanted in detainees at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba.
He said it had worked with horses and falcons, to which the American replied, “Horses don’t have good lawyers.”