The smooth power transition to King Salman, following the death of King Abdullah, demonstrates the stability associated with Saudi Arabia in a region challenged by the attritional forces contesting authority, factionalism, warlordism and outright chaos. The speed and effectiveness with which the new king consolidates his authority will do much to renew expectations that Saudi citizens have of their polity. In turn, the internal coherence of Saudi Arabia, the pivotal power of the oil-producing Arab world, will influence developments in the region and beyond. The stakes are high as Saudi Arabia enters a new phase of regional politics.
The clearest indication of the challenges lying ahead is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Not only has ISIS arrogated to itself the legitimacy of being a state, albeit one that the United Nations does not recognise, but it has also laid claim to being the seat of a global caliphate. In reality, it is a terrorist organisation masquerading as the defender of Muslims worldwide. However, it controls a large swathe of insurrectionary territory in fragmented Iraq and war-torn Syria, it is attracting warriors and adherents from Europe and South-east Asia, and it appears to be holding out reasonably well against military assaults launched by the West and its Middle Eastern allies.
ISIS threatens directly the place that Saudi Arabia occupies in the Sunni Muslim realm, much as Iran does among Shi'ites. Riyadh's own austere practice of Islam, replete with strict compliance with hudud criminal laws and its somewhat antiquated ways in treating its women, draws much justified criticism. But this has to be set against its effective governance, infrastructural development and investment in human resources that hold out for many Muslims and others the hope that it will combine development and piety to point the region away from and beyond the dire alternative presented by ISIS and its murderous radicalism. The Saudi state is a bulwark against the millenarian militancy of the Islamic State.
Preserving its special role in regional affairs will involve Riyadh in continuing the critical partnership with Washington that King Abdullah cultivated so patiently. Keeping ISIS at bay is an objective of Saudi policy that coincides with the wider interests of world powers in a Middle East safe from a militant takeover. Other immediate and insistent goals beckon, too, like preventing a debacle in Yemen, where pro-Iranian elements are on the offensive. King Salman will have to confront these urgent regional realities even as he strives to strike a new working balance among the demographic constituencies that make up his kingdom, their values and their expectations.
This article was first published on January 31, 2015.
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