‘Continuity, Cohesion, and Consolidation Will Be the Watchwords,’ Says LeBaron
Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, is unlikely to depart sharply from the policies of his half-brother and predecessor, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who died on Friday, according to Atlantic Council analyst Richard LeBaron.
“Continuity, cohesion, and consolidation will be the watchwords,” LeBaron, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said in an interview.
Abdullah’s death adds a fresh layer of uncertainty in a region that has seen a sharpening of rivalries between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and chaos in Yemen. These foreign policy crises come as Saudi Arabia grapples with the implications of a sharp decline in the price of oil, the kingdom’s main source of revenue.
Besides these multiple crises, Salman, who is 79, is rumored to be in poor health and suffer from dementia.
In his lifetime, Abdullah ensured some degree of continuity in succession when, besides naming Salman as his heir apparent, he took the unusual decision of appointing Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as deputy crown prince.
“It is always a concern when leaders have health issues because it introduces a degree of uncertainty both about the longevity and the ability of the ruler to actually lead,” said LeBaron, who served as the US ambassador to Kuwait from 2004 to 2007.
“But because the Saudis developed a succession plan before Abdullah died, the events are somewhat predictable,” he added.
LeBaron spoke in an interview with New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts
Q: The new king, Salman Bin Abdulaziz, is perhaps best known in the West for leading the kingdom’s fight against al Qaeda post-9/11. Do you expect a stronger focus under Salman as king on the terrorist threat in the region – particularly in light of the ISIS threat underscored by the shootout on the Saudi-Iraq border this month?
LeBaron: I don’t expect a lot of change in the approach. I also don’t think the threat has changed substantially. In fact, as they consolidate the new king’s position they may be on a higher alert, but I don’t see a fundamental change in the defense posture.
Q:Are we likely to see policy shifts in any other areas under Salman?
LeBaron: It is very hard to read the Saudi leadership and so it’s very difficult to make predictions. One thing that is clear is that the Saudis rarely act quickly. I think the new king will be engaged in a period of consultation and consolidation with other leaders in the region. I wouldn’t expect any rapid change over the next year. Continuity, cohesion, and consolidation will be the watchwords.
Q: Abdullah’s death comes at a time of heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, chaos in Yemen, and plunging oil prices. What effect is this combination of factors having on the kingdom?
LeBaron: This multiplicity of crises puts enormous pressure on Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. There are no easy solutions for any of these issues.
Yemen has boiled over again. The hostilities in Iraq and Syria aren’t going to go away soon. We may see the Saudis focus on unity among the GCC states, and among big states outside the GCC, like Egypt. They may also consolidate their defense and security arrangements with the United States and other partners, including the UK and France.
Q: US ties with Saudi Arabia have become strained over anger in Riyadh over the Obama administration’s attempts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Do you expect these tensions to linger under the new king?
LeBaron: The view of the region differs and will continue to differ. The Saudi fear of Shia influence behind many events in the region will be interpreted differently in the United States.
Of course it will be important to see whether we are able to come to some sort of workable arrangement with Iranians. That day is coming up pretty soon. So the Saudis will either be proven right or proven wrong.
Even if an arrangement is reached, the Saudis will continue to be suspicious and that is appropriate give their prominence in the region and the history of the Iranian Revolution. There is no love lost between the two.
On the other hand, an arrangement on the nuclear issue could open up a different sort of relationship between Iran and the West. That could slowly foster an improvement of relations between Iran and its immediate neighbors, none of whom are allergic to better relations with Iran, but all of whom are somewhat suspicious.
Q: Is that likely to change anything between the Saudis and Iran?
LeBaron: Not in the short term, but the Saudis have had high-level visitors from Iran. They have sent senior people there. They have opened an embassy in Tehran. In some ways the Saudis have more developed relations with Iran than we do. I don’t think we should see the current situation as a permanent state.
Q: What challenges do the falling oil prices present for King Salman?
LeBaron: It would certainly be on my mind if I were a Saudi leader. Oil remains by far the greatest source of government revenue. The precipitous drop in oil prices has already produced some results in terms of driving some of the marginal producers in the West out of the oil business. I don’t know how this story ends.
Q: There have been rumors that Salman has not been in the best of health. Does that create some uncertainty?
LeBaron: It is always a concern when leaders have health issues because it introduces a degree of uncertainty both about the longevity and the ability of the ruler to actually lead. But because the Saudis developed a succession plan before Abdullah died, the events are somewhat more predictable.
It is important to keep in mind that no king rules alone. There is a core of people around the king and people within the royal family who provide for some continuity. That has been built in structurally, to some extent, by the succession plan that was instituted under Abdullah’s tutelage.
Q: What is the future of the reforms that Abdullah pushed through during his reign?
LeBaron: It is hard to tell. I think there are some fundamental changes that are going on in Saudi Arabia and people will not appreciate it if there is backsliding on them. The role of women is slowly, slowly being recognized in marginal, but still important, ways. Abdullah sent hundreds of thousands of young Saudi men and women abroad to study and created many new opportunities for higher education in the kingdom. Those graduates will have a long-term influence on the evolution of Saudi society.
My prediction is there will continue to be gradual reform. There will be some steps backward here and there, and there will be others forward, but I think the curve will be gradually upward in terms of reform.
Q: What will be Abdullah’s legacy?
LeBaron: It is a legacy that is still to be written. One of the things that he will be remembered for is his honesty, his lack of personal corruption, his devotion to education for both men and women, and his gradual opening of the country. There will be those who will always say it wasn’t enough. Certainly by Western standards it hasn’t been enough, and there are still practices that are intolerable in Saudi Arabia. But I think he will be compared favorably with his predecessors and will be remembered fondly by many who were affected by his policies.
Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.