To Stop Iran, Get a New Saudi King

Why Obama should intervene in Riyadh's succession crisis.

RTR36UNY-615.jpgSusan Baaghil/Reuters

This post is part of "Obama and the Middle East: Act Two," a series produced with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on U.S. foreign policy in the president's second term. See our full coverage here.

On December 25, while many Americans were eating turkey or Chinese meals and otherwise distracted from the rest of the world, leaders of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf met in Manama, the capital of the island state of Bahrain, for their annual summit.

The meeting was scarcely noticed by American newspapers and other media, which is a pity. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are on the frontline of one of the likely top news stories of 2013 - Iran's nuclear program. And Saudi Arabia, the GCC's largest, richest and dominant member, is facing a succession crisis.

If the United States and the rest of the international community are ever going to succeed in persuading Tehran to stick to peaceful use of nuclear technology, Saudi Arabia is likely a crucial player. But, right now, Riyadh is increasingly politically incapacitated. The world's largest oil exporter and the self-declared leader of the Islamic world, is almost rudderless.

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, who recently had back surgery, is, at 90 years old, increasingly frail. His half-brother and designated successor, Crown Prince Salman, 77 this year, stood in for him in Manama. But although Salman's visage appeared focused, his contribution was limited - the future king's brain is befuddled by dementia.

Washington needs to overcome its perennial fear of upsetting the House of Saud and, breaking the habit of a lifetime of Foggy Bottom diplomacy, help a new leadership emerge in Riyadh. It doesn't need to be done with any public fanfare - and is probably better if it isn't. Some of the pressure can come via the other GCC members.

Success could be - and needs to be - twofold: stopping a nuclear-armed Iran emerging, and getting the monarchies of the conservative Arab states of the Gulf on the right side of the turmoil in the Arab street.

Within the Saudi royal family, there are those apparently determined to keep Salman's candidacy in the fore. Photos published by the official Saudi Press Agency show that he meets frequently with Saudi officials and even diplomats and foreign visitors. Those in Salman's court rely on the discretion of those attending such occasions to preserve the myth that crown prince can still function effectively.

On an even more public level, Salman's aides seem to be following a public relations plan depicting the crown prince, one of the wealthiest men in the world, as a man of the people. In a speech in Riyadh on December 20, Salman told the audience: "This country is yours...and I am one of you." Such a formulation is at best unusual in the only country in the world named after its ruling family, and sat ill alongside a news story the same day about the new double-decker A-380 private jet belonging to Salman's nephew, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, customized into a "flying palace" at the cost of half a billion dollars.

Presented by

Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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