Iran-US N ties a test to new Saudi king

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah died last week and was succeeded by his half-brother Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel Aziz. Abdullah, 90, leaves a record of modest reform on the domestic level and dangerously confused policies on the regional and international levels.

The fifth son to rule following the 1953 death of the kingdom’s founder Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, Abdullah became king in 2005 but served as regent for his ailing brother Fahd from 1995.

History could repeat itself as Abdullah named another half-brother Muqrin, the youngest son of Abdel Aziz who served as head of domestic intelligence, as deputy crown prince to succeed Salman, 79. He has survived two strokes and is believed to suffering from dementia or Parkinson’s disease.

This was a controversial decision as the late king skipped over 10 other potential candidates. However, he followed the tradition of appointing one of the seven sons of Abdel Aziz with Hasa al-Sudairi, known as the “Sudairi Seven,” as his successor, adhering to the pattern of appointing a Sudairi to be followed by a non-Sudairi. King Salman has named as deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayf, the son of a deceased Sudairi brother and the first grandson of the founder of the dynasty to be tipped for the succession.

Abdullah's mother was Fahda bint Asi al-Shuraim, a member of the powerful Shammar tribe associated with al-Rashid clan, longstanding rivals of al-Saud. Abdullah rose to prominence in 1962 when he was charged with building the Saudi National Guard into a force to impose internal security, protect thousands of members of royal family, and serve as a counter-weight to the regular armed forces.  He became second deputy prime minister in 1975 and first deputy PM in 1982 before becoming de facto ruler and king, preferring the title, “Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques.” 

He ruled a kingdom floating on vast oil wealth and with investments totaling $738 billion but divided by half brothers into warring princely fiefdoms, caught between mores of the modern world and conservative clerics committed to the 18th century Wahhabi ideology, and battling corruption, unemployment and terrorism.

Abdullah was initially challenged domestically by the 1995 bombings at a US military facility in Riyadh that killed five US servicemen and the 1996 terrorist attack on the Khobar Tower Bloc which killed 19 US airmen. The aim of the attackers was to drive US military men out of Saudi Arabia. These incidents, blamed partially on lax security, created strain in the close relationship between the kingdom and the US, established by King Abdel Aziz and President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945.   

The king faced an even greater challenge after 19 hijackers operating under orders from al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001, flew commandeered passenger planes into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, killing more than 3,000 people. While al-Qaeda was founded by a Saudi citizen of Yemeni origin,Usamah bin Laden, 15 of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. After the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that overthrew the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Abdullah invested hundreds of billions in building housing for Saudis, providing scholarships for 70,000 Saudis to study abroad, and constructing local educational facilities, notably the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology which is open to both men and women.

Domestic terrorism
He reformed the ministry of education and initiated a review of judicial appointments.  He attempted to diversify the economy by promoting mining, solar energy, and religious tourism. Thirty women were appointed to his 150 member shuraor advisory council and he decreed that 20 per cent had to be women. His response to domestic terrorism was to crack down hard on all dissidents, detaining and abusing critics of the regime for failing to modernise the country and members of the minority Shia community protesting discrimination and marginalisation. 

Following the 2003 US occupation of Iraq and the installation in Baghdad of a pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalist regime, the Sunni Saudis became pro-active on the regional level, seeking to counter what they saw as the threat of Shia Iranian  hegemony. The Saudis deployed troops to defend the Sunni ruling family in Bahrain from the country's majority Shias who were demanding equality and democracy.

In response to the 2011 unrest in Syria, King Abdullah supported insurgents seeking to overthrow the government, a longstanding Iranian ally, and promoted the expatriate opposition although it had no support or standing within Syria. He also provided funding for Egypt’s cash-strapped new government, headed by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, which overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood dominated regime in 2013.

Abdullah expressed concern over the negotiations between Iran and the US-led powers over Tehran's nuclear programme, fearing that a deal could lead to the lifting of sanctions against Iran and enable it to regain a prominent position in West Asia. His policy has been largely destructive and has led to the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and similar extremist organisations that now threaten the stability of the region and conduct terrorist attacks abroad.

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