Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah died last week during what some saw as the height of his kingdom’s resurgence in a volatile region. As turmoil has engulfed governments across the Middle East since the Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia has seemed to remain a potent pillar of stability. “[F]ar from undermining the Saudi dynasty,” wrote David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times on Sunday, “chaos across the region appears instead to have lifted the monarchy to unrivaled power and influence.”
But as King Salman assumes the throne, is he really taking the reins of an ascendant regional player? Recent evidence, at least in the realm of Saudi foreign policy, suggests the opposite. The final years of Abdullah’s reign were in many ways also years in which the kingdom struggled to retain its historical levels of influence. And with his death, the last of the regionally dominant Saudi monarchs may have passed from the scene. When President Obama lands in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, he will be visiting a declining power.
In its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, Saudi Arabia, through organizations like the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, was able to use its oil wealth and diplomatic weight to get other governments behind its priorities on issues like opposing Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and containing Iran. Saudi-led negotiations resulted in the Taif Agreement, which ended nearly a decade and a half of civil war in Lebanon. But today, as Middle Eastern countries have split up into smaller political camps due to rising sectarianism and the collapse of governments, Saudi Arabia has scrambled to maintain friendships and shape events. As an anonymous Arab diplomat told the Times: “If everybody around you is going wrong, then your influence around your borders is decreased.”