On January 23rd, the global political sphere lost one of its longest standing participants when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud passed away. King Abdullah, by the age of 90, had officially ruled the kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 2005, but since the nineties effectively managed domestic, security and foreign policy affairs in place of his then-ruling half brother, King Fahd, who had suffered a stroke in 1995 .
The king’s death comes at a very delicate time for the oil-rich kingdom; the new regime will have to deal with a myriad problems, ranging from plummeting oil prices, the rise of the Islamic State, and an Iran whose influence is growing across the Middle East. In conjunction, there has been an intensifying crisis in Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the Saudi-backed government.
It is unclear how the new leader, Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, will handle this challenging state of affairs. It’s unlikely that this new regime will be as effective as its predecessor, and if anything, the regime change may cause more instability in the region. The new king must tackle the serious decline in state revenue, changing international relations and domestic social policies, as well as conflict within the royal family.
First and foremost, the new king will have to address the complicated effects of sustained and significant drops in oil prices. Crude oil has plunged to roughly $50 a barrel this year and continues to decline, dealing a massive financial blow to the Saudi government, which is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues. The decline will push Saudi Arabia into a budget deficit in 2015 for the first time in years. As the kingdom has effectively bought itself internal stability by putting in place a highly generous social welfare system that offers citizens free health care, education, and other services, it will be more difficult to maintain such social programs with oil trading at its lowest price in decades.
Saudi Arabia has also used its oil money to build one of the Middle East’s most powerful militaries by buying large amounts of advanced American weaponry and hiring thousands of American and Western troops to train its forces. The kingdom has in recent years also massively ramped up its financial commitments to the Syrian rebels working to unseat Assad as well as the new Egyptian government, which Saudi Arabia sees as a fortification against the Islamists who controlled the country during the short reign of former President Mohamed Morsi. With declining profits from oil, this entire operation could be in jeopardy.
Furthermore, Abdullah placed a focus on domestic reform. He had been working to reduce the country’s reliance on oil by investing in nuclear power and other renewable energies as well as liberalizing the country socially, attempting to give women more freedom in voting. Salman, on the other hand, while experienced in politics and reform by working closely with Abdullah, is also in grave health and very unlikely to exert the energy needed to follow through on these domestic reforms. Ultimately, the religious and more conservative advisory to the King, who are publicly opposed to social reforms involving expanded women’s rights, are likely to control such policies in the near future.
Internationally, the new king will have to forge his own relationship with President Obama and decide how hard to push back against Iran on the battlefields of the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, as well as the negotiating rooms of Geneva. Abdullah kept his country relatively stable at a time when much of the region was racked by violence and rapid political change. The future of Saudi Arabia will be shaped by how well his brother will be able to do the same. This is especially relevant in the intertwined cases of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Yemen and Iran. The widening sectarian conflict in Yemen could more forcefully draw Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Nation, and Shiite Iran into an unpredictable power struggle in which neither side would hold the upper hand. If the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis attempt to govern the majority-Sunni Yemen, King Salman has publicly voiced that he will engage in conflict.
Lastly, King Salman will face a challenge that his brother, King Abdullah, did not have to deal with: internal rivalries in the Royal family itself. The sons of the late King Abdullah will seek to retain some of the influence they have gained in the last few years, but King Salman’s sons will try to take the throne, and have already begun to wrest it from their cousins. Crown Prince Muqrin, the half brother of Abdullah, is the youngest member of his generation and after him, power must pass to the next generation. But the question of which family will be granted that power is up in the air. The push and pull between the generations of this family may be hidden from our view but is likely to be a fierce and destructive internal struggle.
Ultimately, the new king has a series of delicate matters at hand. Profound policy change in Saudi Arabia will have serious impacts domestically and globally, potentially damaging the strongest relationship that the United States has in the Middle East.