King Abdullah's legacy failed the region

King Abdullah's legacy failed the region
During his decade-long rule, the Middle East became a place both of disaster and hope. But King Abdullah's sluggish foreign policy failed to support the wishes of the Arab people, and left a region torn apart.
5 min read
23 Jan, 2015
During Abdullah's rule, an anti-Brotherhood foreign policy was pursued [Anadolu]

The ten-year reign of the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz coincided with a decade of many great challenges in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Given the important role Saudi Arabia plays in the world, and the influence Riyadh yields in the region, what challenges seem remote at first glance are often so connected to Riyadh that they become internal Saudi affairs.

But will the new king, Salman Bin Abdulaziz, be presented with as many challenges as Abdullah faced during his ten years as head of Saudi Arabia?

Iraq shares its longest border with Iran, and during the war that ripped through Riyadh's northern neighbour, Abdullah made a brave description of the United States presence in the country as an "occupation."

Abdullah viewed Iraq as a country occupied by two others: the United States and Iran. While on the throne, the king repeatedly refused to receive former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seeing him as little more than an embodiment of Iran's growing influence in the region.

Iran vs Saudi

It was around the same time that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election to Iran's presidency that Abdullah ascended to the throne in the kingdom. The Iranian conservative adopted the slogan, "exporting the revolution", whereas the Saudi royal pursued a less-invasive policy of "domestic stability first".

This ostensibly aimed to reduce foreign interference at home to bring about greater domestic calm. 

The Saudi policy led to an impasse between an offensive Iranian policy and a defensive Saudi policy that continued for a decade.

For Iran, it meant years of great progress, albeit in a direct and crude manner, as Tehran extended its influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia's influence in these countries, and across the region, receded.

An extremist threat

However, running parallel to Abdullah's pursuit of a less intrusive foreign policy was the growth of al-Qaeda, which had its roots in Saudi Arabia. People in the kingdom found themselves between the hammer and the anvil of an intractable crisis: sectarianism in the region exploded, while Iran's reach extended to sensitive areas of Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaeda and other armed groups pose a threat not just to Iran but also to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh's confrontation with the increasingly muscular Islamic Republic seems almost impossible through "moderate" organisations and traditional frameworks, which have become extremely weak for numerous reasons.

This was most obvious in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, where Saudi support for any Sunni party, under the pretext that they were defending their coreligionists against "the Iranian tide", would do nothing but play into the hands of groups such as al-Qaeda.

     The Brotherhood has been denounced by Riyadh as 'terrorist' in the same breath as the Islamic State group.

This dilemma impeded the efforts of Saudi diplomats in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. What was even more challenging for the Saudi authorities was their phobia of organisations deemed by some as being "moderate," such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

These organisations have been denounced by Riyadh as "hostile" and "terrorist" in the same breath as the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda and others.

A new Arab world

The Arab Spring did nothing to calm Saudi animosity towards Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organisations. Sunnis in the region therefore were devoid of any formidable Saudi-funded "moderate" groups to stand up to an increasingly expansive Iran.

Stepping into the vacuum was a plethora of violent groups who also took advantage of the divisions between Arab nations.

Riyadh was at the heart of these disagreements in the region, such as the Turkish-Saudi split, and the crisis with Egypt under Mohamed Morsi. Saudi was not even immune to squabbles with its Gulf neighbours, such as the split with Qatar, which reportedly only came to an end thanks to the initiative of the late king.

All that happened in the presence of a "soft US policeman" named Barack Obama. Obama's administration, knowingly or unknowingly, helped Iran export its revolution, creating an Iranian lebensraum; a living space that Tehran calls "the Islamic Middle East".

Evaluating his rule, it would be easy to blame the late king for all of the country's mistakes and crises that unfolded over the years. One example would be Yemen, which was traditionally seen as the backyard of Saudi Arabia. During Abdullah's era, the southern neighbour fell into the hands of Iran's allies, the Houthis.

A historical irony

In years to come, history students might appreciate the irony of this chapter of Saudi history. Sanaa, and its president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, fell to the Tehran-backed Houthi militants on the same day that the Saudi king died.

This is a historical coincidence that essentially links the man's ten years in power with a historical decline of Saudi influence and lights up the failures of its foreign policy.

King Abdullah dies: What next for Saudi Arabia?

The Saudi decline was also flagrantly obvious in Syria.

Many have said that, from day one of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Riyadh decided to rid Syria of President Bashar al-Assad. But they had no designated strategy - or any alternative to Assad's dynastic rule.

'Tribal decisions'

The Saudi inaction in Syria took on a similar line to the "tribal decisions", where personal considerations take priority over national plans and strategies. In other words, Saudi Arabia's actions were based on reactions.

This is why many have said that, during the years of Abdullah's rule, Saudi Arabia was devoid of a brain - particularly in the offices that formulated the country's foreign policy.

This inactivity represented the aging and increasingly infirm upper echelons of the Saudi royal family. Saud Bin Faisal al-Saudi, the former foreign minister, became something of a symbol of this image.

Added to this were the disputes within the royal family on how to deal with sensitive foreign policy issues such as the differences between the sons of Abdullah and Prince Bandar over Syria. 

All of this culminated in turning Abdallah Bin Abdul Aziz's ten years in power into a decade of collapse for Saudi Arabia, and turmoil in countries close by. The kingdom could not confront the revolutions and challenges that erupted, and instead made sluggish reactions at best.

Usually, these decisions came too late, and what we saw in Yemen, on the day Abdullah died, is probably the clearest example of all.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.