Even a coincidence can sometimes yield compelling symbolism. Hours before Saudi Arabia lost its long-reigning king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi resigned in the face of a prolonged siege by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
This coincidence underscores the rise of three menacing regional forces. First is the thriving hegemonic ambition of Iran via its proxies such as the Houthi militia in Yemen.
Second are violent extremists such as Al Qaeda, who will now find it easier to falsely pose as the defenders of Sunni Arabs against their sectarian rivals in Yemen and elsewhere.
And third are separatist movements, such as the one in southern Yemen, which are threatening the disintegration of several failing Arab states.
Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia strove to position itself as the leader of efforts to confront these regional dangers. But at the time of his passing, many of these policies were in a state of disarray. Extremists like ISIL are proliferating and gaining stature. And Iranian influence is now dominant in Damascus, Baghdad, Sanaa and, to some extent, in Beirut.
The late king was remarkably successful in dealing with Saudi Arabia’s long-standing ally and security guarantor, the United States, not least after the September 11 attacks, but in recent years the kingdom has begun to doubt American reliability.
This is partly because of a sense of drift in American policy and the perception that it is fatigued with its role in the Middle East. The US is seen as abandoning not just its reckless adventures, but also what many regard as its crucial security obligations.
The biggest single source of tension with the US – its flirtation with Iran – emerged during the latter part of King Abdullah’s reign. Saudi Arabia and many other traditional American allies in the region have been deeply alarmed by the idea that the Obama administration may be seeking not simply a nuclear agreement but a broader rapprochement with Tehran. They fear that Washington would, at best, seek to balance Arab and Iranian interests and, at worst, favour the latter. Saudi dismay over US policy towards Syria is compounded by the fact that this is viewed as a symptom of the perceived American tilt towards Tehran.
In 2013, mounting Saudi frustration over real or imagined American policies led to numerous pronouncements about the kingdom’s willingness to “go it alone”. And while the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria has helped to bring Washington and Riyadh closer together in the quest to “degrade and destroy” the group, King Abdullah’s government was still looking for alternatives.
Perhaps his most ambitious and potentially effective strategic initiative was the development of a strong alliance with the new Egyptian government led by Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Theoretically, these two traditional pillars of Arab power and stability in the Middle East could, if operating in harmony and unison, function as an axis to unite other like-minded Arab actors and thereby defend their interests, especially with regard to combating radical Islamism and Iranian hegemony.
But the alliance is not fully cemented. Among other things, Mr El Sisi does not appear to share Saudi enthusiasm for unseating the Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. And the Egyptian president has made several, strongly-worded, and potentially trailblazing, speeches decrying the obscurantism, stridency and hostility to the rest of the world that is embodied in harsh ideologies that falsely operate under the banner of Islam. For all of its distaste for groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIL, it’s hard to imagine Saudi Arabia officially embracing Mr El Sisi’s demands for a “revolution” in Muslim discourse that promotes “a more enlightened vision of the world”. Yet this is precisely what, in the long run, will probably be required to achieve the Saudi goals of security and stability.
A survey of the wreckage of states strewn throughout the region readily explains, and possibly vindicates, the Saudi abhorrence of revolution as an instrument of change. But without a robust reform agenda, more of these upheavals will surely be inevitable. Yemen is hardly the last Arab state liable to confront a crisis of legitimacy stemming from dysfunctional governance and state institutions that operate without consent from the governed.
Saudi Arabia has long understood that, in the Arab world, religion and politics are inextricably intertwined. That insight needs to be mobilised to protect and promote the regional stability Saudi Arabia craves.
The regional status quo cannot be preserved indefinitely. Change is inevitable. Arab states need to embrace a managed and gradual process of change that addresses both political order and religious discourse.
Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia sought to serve as a bulwark of stability. And under his successors it can, especially if it embraces an agenda that promotes greater political legitimacy and functionality in Arab states. It should seek to combat extremism and fanaticism through inclusion and accountability that is secured by guided social and economic development.
The Saudi sense of being “surrounded and besieged” is embodied in one of King Abdullah’s last major projects: a 600-mile military barrier along the entire length of the border with Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is increasingly encircled, but not by anything that a wall can keep out.