Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the succession in the Saudi Arabian monarchy last week was how undramatic and routine it was. The sixth such succession to a new monarch and crown prince in modern Saudi history lacked the tension and behind the scenes jockeying for power that had been so widely hyped in much of the Western and sensationalist Arab media.
This is because two of the three most important dimensions of Saudi state and society — domestic governance and petroleum policy — are fully under control and in the hands of the ruling authorities, headed by the House of Saud. There is little chance for the moment that any external exhortations would bring about any significant changes in these two domains. Saudi internal and petroleum policies in recent years have evolved broadly in line with prevailing priorities, including occasional local and limited reforms alongside occasional forceful moves — like the current sharp oil price drop — to maintain Saudi Arabia’s share in the global oil sales market.
Any faster or further reforms in domestic policy will reflect the natural evolution of interests and values within Saudi society. These move very slowly — somewhat like gun control policies within the United States, which reflect the same kind of persistence of conservative values that seem impervious to even the most shocking abuse of guns.
The third major dimension of Saudi society and state — regional policy — is the most dynamic and intriguing, because it responds heavily to the actions of others who are not within the control of the Saudi system. Regional and foreign policy is the arena where traditional conservative Saudi values and operating methods run up against the challenges of modern geopolitics and aggressive initiatives by many other states and non-state actors.
Regional and foreign policy has always been conducted quietly and discreetly, using Saudi moral, political and financial influence to maintain stability above all else in the region. Occasional forays into regional conflicts — like confronting Gamal Abdel Nasser in Yemen in the 1960s — was just that, very occasional.
Those days are behind us. Today’s Middle Eastern and global orders present a very different picture from the previous 80 years of Saudi statehood. The collapse of the Cold War in 1990 removed the great stabilizer that had kept the Middle East largely unchanged politically for half a century. The combination of rapidly growing populations alongside economic stagnation and disparity caused most Arab countries by the 1990s to suffer internal stresses and challenges to their established power structures. Some states fragmented or reconfigured, like Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Lebanon; others saw their all-powerful central governments cede authority here and there, which allowed non-state tribal, militia and religious actors to emerge and share power, if not formal sovereignty.
So King Salman now engages with regional and global orders marked by several new patterns: total chaos in some areas, partial state collapse in others, widespread use of political violence and terrorism, and massive intervention by foreign actors. Saudi Arabia itself suffered from political violence in recent decades, but ultimately beat back the attempt by Al-Qaeda within the kingdom to foment trouble and challenge the state.
The traditional Saudi style of quiet action and indirect intervention in regional issues is unlikely to succeed in the turbulent new regional conditions. Violent actors like ISIS, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and many other smaller such groups do not respond to the kinds of Saudi and other political engagements that maintained regional calm in the past, including mediation, development aid, and others. A new sectarian streak in regional and local tensions — especially Sunni-Shiite rivalries — is a troubling and novel element, which the Saudi authorities cannot ignore because of their historic role as custodians of the Islamic heartland and guardians of Sunni Islam.
The late King Abdullah responded to these realities quite forcefully, and quickly grasped the new factor in the Middle East that now faces his successor King Salman: There are no more local conflicts in this region, and all local or national strife is directly linked to greater regional powers and sometimes global confrontations. It is not feasible to address local issues with a local power-sharing antidote, such as happened in Lebanon at the end of the civil war in 1990. Conflicts like Syria, Iraq, ISIS, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Libya and even Egypt link directly to regional actors like Iran, Turkey, Qatar and others, now including Saudi Arabia, which itself has responded to the regional conflicts by stepping in to forcefully support rebels in Syria, the Lebanese armed forces, the Egyptian government, and, when possible, conflict-ending peace agreements such as the Saudis attempted over the years in Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.