Uneasy lies the head that wears the Saudi crown

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Je suis Abdullah.

RIYADH — The normally gridlocked streets of the Saudi capital were quiet on Sunday after King Salman declared a day of mourning for his predecessor Abdullah, and more foreign leaders made their way to the kingdom. An anti-terrorism march in Paris honoring victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks didn’t register at the White House as something to scramble President Barack Obama’s or Vice President Joe Biden’s schedule to attend.SAUDI Arabia’s King Abdullah wasn’t the “strong advocate of women” IMF director Christine Lagarde made him out to be in her tribute following his death.Oil prices reacted, almost immediately and violently, to the news of the death of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, the ruler of the world’s largest crude exporter and OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia for almost a decade.

Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean arrived, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was on his way to offer condolences to Salman, who acceded to the throne on Friday after Abdullah’s death at the age of about 90. Salman, a half-brother of the former king, is the new ruler, while the recently named deputy, Crown Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of Saudi Arabia’s founder, has moved up in line. This week’s royal succession in Saudi Arabia got the opposite treatment: White House aides upended plans for both to show as much respect to the new Saudi king as they could.

But during his 10 years ruling a unique, autocratic kingdom long governed by the most inflexible interpretations of Sunni Islam he was a willing, if discreet, social reformer and a crucial strategic ally in the battle against terrorism, particularly al-Qa’ida. The passing of King Abdullah in the early hours of Friday led to speculation that a leadership transition could result in a change to the country’s oil policy and strategy. Saudi Arabia has long been a key United States ally and last year joined the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State jihadist group. It is a recognition of the conservative Islamic kingdom’s power as the world’s leading oil exporter, a political heavyweight in a region threatened by extremist violence, and as home to Islam’s holiest sites. By contrast, aides were taken by surprise when 44 heads of state turned up to lock arms amid “Je Suis Charlie” placards on just two days’ notice—so surprised that they were forced to apologize.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Shiite-dominated Iran was among the guests, making a rare visit as Tehran tries to improve relations with its Sunni regional rival. Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Oman’s Deputy Prime Minister Fahd bin Mahmoud al-Said also travelled to Saudi Arabia. Both Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko joined the well-wishers, even as pro-Kremlin rebels announced a major new offensive on a strategic government-held Ukrainian port.

Ironically, given Saudi contempt for “godless communism”, the situation there is reminiscent of nothing so much as the gerontocracy that was the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Other guests included French President Francois Hollande, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, European royalty and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has resurged in another Saudi neighbor, Yemen, as rival militias have seized the country’s capital and deposed the U.S.-friendly president. And with his administration deep in nuclear negotiations with Iran, Obama needs to reassure Saudi leaders uneasy over the United States’ rapprochment with its geopolitical and religious rival.

Through the Arab Spring upheavals King Abdullah defied the doomsayers predicting an uprising, maintaining his country as a bulwark of stability and moderation in the Middle East and a vital ally for the West in combating Islamic terrorism, not least in confronting Iranian malevolence. Outside, a helicopter patrolled overhead and four lanes of cars — everything from luxury Bentleys to everyday models — inched towards the palace grounds carrying Saudi well-wishers past guards with pistols strapped to their thighs. But the most pressing challenge for the new collective leadership — one that will be hamstrung by the existence of strong political fiefdoms and a relatively weak centre — is how to deal with a strategic environment that has deteriorated markedly from the Saudi vantage point. King Abdullah’s funeral was Friday, and Biden’s office swiftly announced that he’d lead the American delegation to pay respects during the traditional Saudi mourning period on Tuesday. Away from the palace and nearby roadblocks, life continued with almost no indication that a new era had begun, except for billboards expressing condolences for Abdullah’s death.

The latest blow is Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour to the south, where Iran — Saudi Arabia’s principal rival for influence — has the upper hand. Strategic challenges and the need for domestic reform, especially in women’s rights, should weigh heavily on King Salman but, at 79, we might not expect much. The limited rise in US crude was attributed to a reported buildup of inventory at the Cushing, Oklahoma storage hub and the partial shutdown of an Indiana refinery. A low-key way of mourning and the burial of Abdullah in an unmarked grave are in keeping with the kingdom’s adherence to the austere teachings of 18th century Muslim scholar Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab. “What is not encouraged in sharia is to be hysterical” in grief, said Khalid al-Dakhil, an independent political analyst and expert on Wahhabism, He was referring to Islamic sharia law that governs religious and secular duties in the kingdom.

Instead, Obama and the first lady will cut short their three-day visit to India, canceling a side trip to see the Taj Mahal, to depart for Saudi Arabia. Yet in the next generation, such as Western-educated Mohammed bin Nayef, who has led the Saudi struggle against al-Qa’ida, lies real hope for urgently needed social reform and modernisation.

A trader said energy data provider Genscape estimated that US crude stockpiles in Cushing, Oklahoma, rose 1.7 million barrels in the week ending Tuesday. They’re expected to be on the ground for just a few hours. “We determined that the window when the vice president would be on the ground in Riyadh coincided with the president’s departure from India,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, announcing the change-up early Saturday. Under Abdullah, the kingdom weathered a storm of violence from militant groups linked to al-Qa’ida and its founder, Saudi construction heir Osama bin Laden.

Reports quoting sources familiar with the plant’s operations said they did not know when the 90,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) crude distillation unit would be restarted. A cartoon in the daily pictured a Saudi couple in tearful prayer before a smiling Abdullah waving from a framed portrait. “Rest in peace and may you go to paradise,” the couple said. The Syrian civil war has turned that country into yet another failed state, where the majority Sunni population finds itself under attack both from Iran-backed government forces as well as from various radical Islamist groups. Earnest was adamant that posed no question about who was in charge of the country: “The fact remains that President Obama is president of the United States everywhere he goes.

Surprisingly, for a rigid kingdom policed by censorship, the first word that Abdullah was dying came through a Twitter account with 1.4 million followers. Jordan, arguably Saudi Arabia’s closest partner in the region, has its hands full with millions of refugees that have crossed its borders, while Bahrain’s minority Sunni regime is having difficulty maintaining order among its Shia majority population. Late on Wednesday night it broke the news that doctors had informed his sons that Abdullah, who was admitted to hospital with a lung infection on New Year’s Eve, had not long to live. The US oil benchmark, which had risen as much as 3.1 percent in overnight trading, turned negative during the morning session, down 21 cents, or 0.4 percent, at $46.10 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Saudi officials are understandably worried about the country’s nuclear programme , and also have a perpetual concern about Iran’s ability to stir up trouble among the kingdom’s own Shia minority of some 3m people, many of whom live in the oil-rich eastern province.

The danger is not simply terrorist attacks in the classic sense, although that threat is significant, particularly if they demonstrate the regime’s inability to provide security to pilgrims making the journey to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Diplomatic sources said Salman is likely to have needed time to stabilise the military, pass orders to the National Guard and hold the necessary conversations within the family to let them know that change was imminent. A clue came in one of the first decisions of Salman’s reign: Khalid al-Tuwaijri, an adviser to the late king, was removed from his position as head of the royal court. The internet, more than bombs, could be the government’s undoing, especially as resentment of the kingdom’s thousands of cosseted princes is both broad and deep. The air of uncertainty began to disappear. “There is no tangible evidence to suggest that Saudi Arabia will veer away from existing policy of keeping oil output steady in the face of growing US shale oil supply,” Harry Tchilinguirian, head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas SA, was quoted as saying, adding, King Salman “was already actively involved in policy-making.” “There’s still an overwhelming glut of supply in global markets,” Stephen Schork, president of Schork Group in Villanova, Pennsylvania told the press. “Certainly this death matters but it doesn’t fundamentally change anything.

-Saudi relationship has been strained under Obama, particularly after the president chose not to strike Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians in 2013—leaving Saudi leaders doubting Obama’s resolve and his commitment to Middle East security. The Saudis are trying to preserve market share and have been quite clear about that.” Also with the new King continuing to back the veteran Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi, any possibility of Naimi finally hanging his boots also disappeared. But muddling through what could be years of relatively low oil prices against the backdrop of a restive population and a chaotic and dangerous neighbourhood will require a leadership both united and capable. Last week a ragtag army of Yemeni gunmen, the Houthis, who hardly anybody outside the country had ever heard of, swarmed into Sanaa and put the presidency under siege. On the one hand, the Saudis provide crucial counterterrorism assistance and have managed to preserve stability at home despite the Arab Spring’s regional upheavals.

Their vast oil reserves also give them huge and sometimes very helpful influence over global energy markets: the kingdom’s willingness to keep pumping crude amid falling oil prices has hammered the Russia and Iran’s oil-dependent economies, much to Washington’s delight. The country’s strict religious conservatism, which it also promotes abroad, bars women from most workplaces and from driving cars; women often can’t leave their home without a male escort. Ominously for the Saudis, the Shia majority areas of Iraq are contiguous with their own troubled eastern provinces, home to the oilfields, where a Shia minority has agitated for revolution and pays homage to the Iranian theocracy.

But the kingdom continues to be criticized for human rights abuses and oppressing women — who famously are not allowed to drive and need male escorts most of the time they leave the house — which can make for some uncomfortable diplomacy. “You’re always operating in a place where you can’t stand anything they do,” said one former Clinton administration official. Hillary Clinton herself, Obama’s first secretary of state, has told associates of her discomfort working closely with a country so hostile to women’s rights.

With a pro-Western mentality and frequent meetings in Washington with Obama’s homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and others, presidential advisers see him as “our guy.” Whether bin Nayef will join Salman in the room with Obama is still being worked out.

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