Difficult Times for Saudi Arabia

September 28, 2015

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away on January 23, 2015 and was immediately succeeded by his half-brother Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Later, in a major reshuffle, King Salman appointed his nephew Muhammed bir Nayef as Crown Prince and his son Muhammed bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister. The changes which were perceived as representing a more dynamic leadership were well-received in the West. Reference was made to Riyadh’s growing role as a regional power. In other words, the “first impression” was largely favorable. In the meantime the Saudi-led military campaign which had started on March, 26 against Yemen’s Houthis continued with even greater vigor.

President Obama led a large delegation to Riyadh on January 27, 2015 to offer his condolences upon the passing of King Abdullah. In mid-May, King Salman chose not to attend the US-GCC summit held at Camp David. This led to speculation about a “snub” to underline the Kingdom’s displeasure over the prospective Iran nuclear deal but this was denied by the Saudis. On July 14 the Iran nuclear deal was concluded. Finally on September 5, 2015, King Salman visited Washington and the Saudi side let it be known that they were satisfied with the assurances on the deal.

Now, eight months into the reign of King Salman, Saudi Arabia needs to tackle two immediate problems in order to save whatever is left of that positive “first impression”.

Firstly, Riyadh needs to conclude its military campaign against Yemen’s Houthies. And, with President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi back in Aden after a six-month exile it needs to put the emphasis on a political solution. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the 30th session of the Human Rights Council on September, 15 that the situation on the ground in Yemen continues to be a cause for serious concern with over 2,000 civilian casualties and more than 4,000 wounded. He said that the humanitarian crisis was deepening, with estimates that as many as 21 million Yemenis – 80% of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance. He called for an independent and comprehensive body to thoroughly examine all credible allegations of human rights. He strongly urged revival of the talks between the exiled government and the Houthis. Amnesty International has accused all armed antagonists in Yemen of complicity in war crimes, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians. And, the Netherlands has submitted a draft resolution to the Human Rights Council asking Mr. Al Hussein to send a mission to report on possible abuses and conflict-related crimes in Yemen. In response, the Saudis have submitted their own, reportedly to avoid an investigation.

Secondly, the Hajj stampede which left nearly eight hundred pilgrims dead has been a blow to Saudi Arabia’s international standing because it came in a string of similar disasters. The Saudi kings carry the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” and thus the country is the focal point of Islam. It owes its international standing to this title as well as its oil wealth and strategic location. Riyadh, therefore, needs to conduct a convincing investigation of legal consequence to avoid further embarrassment.

These are the two immediate issues. Beyond them lies the overarching question of how and for how long the monarchy can maintain country’s internal stability. There are no easy choices between reform and maintaining the status quo with the Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood and others waiting for opportunities to test the Saudi dynasty. This represents a challenge not only for Riyadh but also for Washington.

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