King Abdullah: The Middle East’s Failed Peacemaker

The king succeeded in bringing some stability to Saudi Arabia, but he could do nothing but despair as chaos descended on the rest of the region.

Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters

President George W. Bush held his hand and walked with him through a field of flowers at the ranch in Crawford, Texas. President Barack Obama, when he first met him, performed a courtly bow.

For Saudi Arabia’s aged King Abdullah, whose death was announced in Riyadh early Friday morning, physical gestures of friendship and respect were important, so even American presidents indulged him. He was one of the most powerful men in the world, after all, and he was also one of the easiest to understand.

A former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh described Abdullah as “in many ways a throwback to that desert warrior ethos where men stand by their word, they look each other straight in the eye, they are direct, and they apply a code of honor.”

Abdullah’s daughter, Princess Adelah, once told me, “My father doesn’t have two parallel identities. What you see as a monarch and a ruler is what you see as a father. He is very straightforward, very honest, he hates injustice, and he likes truth.”

But Abdullah was doomed to disappointment. The ambassador remembers that when they were together the king would ask rhetorically, “Where are the men of honor left in the Middle East?” And the answer, clearly, was “none are to be found.”

In recent years Abdullah’s traditional values and attitudes became a source of huge frustration for him. People close to the ninety-something king say events seemed to overwhelm him, baffle him, infuriate him. He believed he had made a peace offer to Israel that it could not refuse, and yet it had. He could not accept the news that those who carried out the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the “miscreants” as he called them, were sons of Saudi Arabia. But they were. He had wanted to bring stability to the Middle East, and all he saw was growing chaos.

With his own powers waning (he was said to sleep most of the day) he entrusted some very sensitive issues to that most Machiavellian of Saudi princes, Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to Washington who, before he finally was dismissed as intelligence chief last year, achieved results exactly opposite of those intended: Syria fractured amid unconscionable slaughter; the so-called Islamic State grew; Iraq became a Shiite-dominated country on Saudi Arabia’s northern border; and now Yemen, the kingdom’s poor but strategically vital neighbor, is falling apart on the southern frontier.

Abdullah gave Bandar two important briefs. One was to stop the advance of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region after the Arab Spring. The organization, originally modeled on the communist and fascist parties of the 1920s, promises a sort of theocratic democracy undermining traditional monarchies, and the House of Saud has come to see it as a direct threat. So the Saudis were instrumental in supporting Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi when he overthrew the Brotherhood’s elected government in Cairo in 2013 and then moved to crush the whole organization. But Egypt, now, is in terrible economic condition, and even the Saudi government is said to be tired of writing checks to keep it afloat.

The other major goal for Bandar was to stop the advancing influence and presence of Iran in the region. Riyadh sent troops into little Bahrain to suppress Shiite-led protest there. But every other point of confrontation was a disaster. Most recently the Houthis in Yemen, allegedly with Iranian support, have overthrown the Saudi-backed government there.

In Syria, because Abdullah would not support the traditional Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition, and vehemently opposed the Iran-allied Assad government, his agents found themselves groping for other groups to carry out a revolution. In the process the Saudis provided support directly or indirectly to fighters that eventually aligned with al Qaeda or, worse still, the newly established “Islamic State” widely known as ISIS or ISIL.

In Iraq, the more pressure Saudi-backed Sunnis put on the Shiite government in Baghdad, the more it leaned on Tehran for support. The polarization that developed also helped open the way for the growth of ISIS on that side of the frontier. And the head of ISIS, having declared himself “caliph,” the leader of all the world’s Muslims, must soon turn his attention toward the Saudi city of Mecca, which is the most holy site in Islam.

When the Obama administration started negotiating seriously with Iran over its nuclear program, with the possibility that at the end of that process there would be a normalization of relations, King Abdullah was said to be furious. Not only was he worried that Washington would let Tehran retain a capacity to make nuclear weapons on short notice (a concern Abdullah shared with Israel), he feared that Iran would become, somehow, America’s new best friend in the region, much as it was when the shah was in power in the 1970s.

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It will be difficult if not impossible for Abdullah’s chosen successor, 79-year-old King Salman, to pick up all these friable pieces of policy. In one of his first moves, he named Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, his nephew, as deputy crown prince. Nayef's specialty has been the fight against Al Qaeda, often in close cooperation with the United States. (He was nearly killed by a suicide bomber from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009, as recorded in grisly video shown on Saudi television at the time.) If the contagion of chaos spreads into Saudi Arabia itself, which might easily happen, the effects will be felt dramatically around the world. And while there are many important aspects of Bin Nayef's ascension, including the possibility he will become eventually the first king from his generation, his priority for now will be to keep the dogs of terror at bay. The kingdom, as former CIA operative Robert Baer likes to explain, “is the fulcrum that the global economy teeters on.”

To make sense of the critical American relationship with the Saudis, the heritage of Abdullah and the future under Salman, the first thing to understand is that the ties are built entirely on the basic principle of realpolitik, which puts shared interests above all else. Those are the supply of oil, the money it generates, and the stability in the region that allows the oil and money to keep flowing.

For a long time the arithmetic of the realpolitik was simple: Saudi Arabia had about 25 percent of the world’s proven oil supply and the United States accounted for about 25 percent of global demand. The Saudis had so much oil that was so accessible, in fact, that by turning some of their taps on or off they could effectively determine price on the world market, and that is what gave them such enormous power. Politicians in the United States would rail against “importation of foreign oil.” But it didn’t matter where it came from, the Saudis more or less determined what it cost.

Although many in the West still remember the Saudis as leaders of the devastating OPEC oil embargos in the 1970s, for most of the last 30 years they have used their ability to keep the market relatively stable. And several times as crown prince and king, Abdullah used that Saudi power to help out the United States. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, huge jumps in the oil price might have been expected. That didn’t happen. The Saudis increased shipments and production to keep the market on an even keel.

In the middle of the last decade, the enormous oil demand from booming Asian economies exceeded the ability of the global market, even the Saudis, to keep up. The resulting vertiginous surge in prices from the $20 a barrel range in 2001 to $100-plus in 2008, contributed to the global economic crisis that erupted that year. But by then Abdullah was investing more than $50 billion to increase Saudi Arabia’s ability to up the flow whenever it wants.

Today, Saudi Arabia controls 85 percent of global spare production capacity. And its decision to keep the pumps open at a time when the United States has also vastly increased production through fracking is what has caused a 50 percent drop in the price of oil over the last few months. Oil producing countries that have big populations and weak economies—Russia, Venezuela, and Iran—are in dire straits as a result, which suits U.S. policy goals as well. (The Saudis have $900 billion in foreign reserves, so they are positioned to weather low oil prices for quite some time to come.)

The American side of the bargain with Saudi Arabia was always to offer it a military defense against its enemies, as the United States did in 1990 when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. And, at least until recently, Riyadh was comfortable in the belief that Washington would protect it from Iran. In the meantime American weapons manufacturers racked up countless billion-dollar contracts.

But apart from the oil-defense nexus, there really is no tie that binds. Forget democracy. Forget human rights. Forget freedom of expression. Forget women’s rights. Those all are laudable objectives, but if, as the Saudi elite seems to believe, they can be used directly or indirectly to challenge the regime, then they are luxuries too costly even for the richest monarchs on earth.

Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahd, once warned a protégé he was sending to work with the Americans, “We have no cultural connection with them… no ethnic connection to them… no religious connection… no language connection… no political connection.” And anyone arguing today that Western-style freedoms will bring long-term stability and prosperity to the Arabian Peninsula will have to explain why the grim fate of those countries that experienced the “Arab Spring” wouldn’t befall the Saudis if they went in that direction.

Inside his country, Abdullah did try to carry out some significant reforms, but he also believed progress had to be slow, and even as an absolute monarch he found he was up against immovable Saudi bureaucracy and tradition. “We have a lot of decrees that are not executed,” his daughter told me during a push for reforms in women’s education. “But the executives of these institutions and the ministers don’t believe in these decrees, so they put them in drawers.”

Under Salman, none of that is likely to change.

That Abdullah was as successful a leader as he proved to be is, in retrospect, surprising. He was born into the crumbling palaces of desert tribes in 1923 (the precise date was not recorded). When he was a boy, his father, Abdelaziz ibn Saud, had not yet finished his desert conquests or founded the nation-state that bears the family name.

As Abdullah grew up, the Saudis’ rule was threatened by the same intolerant fanaticism of their allies’ atavistic Wahhabi “Brotherhood” that had helped bring them to power. The kingdom was threatened constantly by war and rebellion. As an adult, Abdullah saw the burgeoning of phenomenal oil wealth and the corrosive effects of spectacular greed—and more fanaticism, more insurrection—including the bloody siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979.

It was after that savage battle that Abdullah’s predecessors started trying to export not only their radical faith, but their radicals, to fight in a holy war against the godless Soviet communists in Afghanistan. From that effort grew the nucleus of the organization that came to be called al Qaeda, while Wahhabi-funded imams and schools indoctrinated young men the world over.

After then-Crown Prince Abdullah heard of the attacks on the United States in 2001, a visitor to the palace found him at prayer. “I am sure our good people did not do these things,” Abdullah said when he had finished, and it took him some time to accept what had happened. It was not until al Qaeda carried out a series of bombings in Saudi Arabia in 2003 that Abdullah turned the full force of his security apparatus against the organization and its sympathizers.

In 2002, Abdullah had tried to set a new course for Saudi and Arab diplomacy, with a plan that offered Israel peace with every nation in the Arab world if it would return to its 1967 borders, accept East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and work out an arrangement to allow the descendants of Palestinian refugees to return to their original homeland or receive compensation. The Israelis found the plan unacceptable.

At the same time, Abdullah had to watch intrigues in his own family. His father, Abdelaziz ibn Saud, had left more than 40 recognized sons by several women. When Abdelaziz died in 1953, the succession passed to his son Saud, who was deposed in 1964 by his half brother Faisal, who was murdered years later by a nephew. The crown has never yet passed to the next generation, and will not do so now.

In the 1980s, King Fahd and his brothers Sultan, Nayef, and Salman—all sons of the same mother, Hassa bint Ahmed al Sudairi—looked as if they would establish a dynasty within the dynasty. But by then Abdullah, his mother’s only child, was well established as the head of the powerful, and heavily tribal, Saudi National Guard. His power base could not be ignored.

When Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995, Abdullah became the de facto ruler and when Fahd died in 2005, Abdullah succeeded to the throne. But the Sudairi brothers were positioned to follow him: Sultan as defense minister, Nayef as interior minister, Salman as mayor of Riyadh. Then Sultan died in 2011 and Nayef died in 2012.

For the moment, Salman’s designated successor is his half brother Prince Muqrin who, at 69, is the youngest of the surviving sons of Abdelaziz. But many in the kingdom view him as a weak figure. The man Salman has named as deputy crown prince, counter-terror czar Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, the son of Nayef, the grandson of Abdelaziz and Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, already is talked about as the dominant power in the upper echelons of the government. For now, it looks as if the monarchy will endure. And, for better or worse, given so many uncertainties in such a strategic part of the world, the United States had better hope that it does.