Q&A: What Does Death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia Mean for the US?

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Q&A: What Does Death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia Mean for the US?

Jan 23rd, 2015 3 min read

Commentary By

James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Josh Siegel @SiegelScribe

Former News Editor, The Daily Signal

When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died on Friday, the loss could be felt in the United States.

That’s because Abdullah, 90, who assumed the throne in 2005, had led one of the West’s key strategic allies in the Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia is also the world’s largest exporter of oil.

The king’s death creates uncertainty in the Middle East, a region already overwhelmed by crises and threatened by terrorism.

A brother of Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman, will take over as king, and be charged with overcoming new challenges facing the kingdom.

In an interview with The Daily Signal, James Phillips, an expert on the Middle East for The Heritage Foundation, reflects on Abdullah’s legacy and charts Saudi Arabia’s future.

The Daily Signal: King Abdullah had a reputation as a reformer, but his record disappointed some. What should the legacy of King Abdullah be, both at home and in the U.S.?

Phillips: Although the late king was far from liberal from an American perspective, he was considered to be a liberal in the Saudi context.

His incremental reforms of the educational system, expansion of the fields that women were allowed to work in, approval of voting rights for women in Saudi Arabia’s limited local elections and approval of women running for office were major changes.

Saudi women still are prohibited from driving but that is much more likely [to happen] after the reforms put in place by Abdullah.

For the United States, Abdullah was a reliable ally for containing Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival, and pushing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, when he was the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as crown prince under an ailing King Fahd.

He also has been an ally in battling ISIS, which poses a bigger threat to Saudi Arabia than it does to the U.S.

Despite major differences with the U.S. on Arab-Israeli issues, Abdullah did support a diplomatic solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a softening of Saudi Arabia’s traditional hardline opposition to Israel’s existence.

Q: What does King Abdullah’s death mean for Saudi Arabia’s oil production strategy, and for worldwide supply of oil?

A: In the short run, the king’s death probably will not result in major changes to Saudi oil policy.

As the world’s biggest oil producer and steward of roughly 15 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saudi Arabia favors lower oil prices than most OPEC countries because it has a long oil production horizon and wants to discourage the development of alternative supplies such as U.S. shale oil.

New Saudi leader King Salman has indicated that he will maintain Saudi oil production policies put in place by Abdullah and will retain the same oil minister.

This is good news for the global economy and oil-importing states everywhere.

Q: What should we know about the new king, Salman?

A: Salman probably won’t rule very long. He is 79 and reportedly has experienced mounting health problems.

He probably will continue many of the policies of his predecessor, but is unlikely to support incremental reforms to the same extent.

Q: What challenges does Salman face?

Salman faces rising external threats to his kingdom, including Iran, al-Qaeda’s franchise in neighboring Yemen and ISIS, which has attracted support from many young Saudis.

Yesterday’s ouster of Yemeni President Hadi, a Saudi ally, by Iran-backed Houthi rebels is a sign of growing potential threats from the south.

Iran also is active in backing Shiite militants in Bahrain and inside Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the kingdom’s major oil-producing region.

He also must provide for the needs of Saudi Arabia’s rapidly growing population, particularly jobs for young Saudis, who have a high unemployment rate and may be susceptible to the siren call of Islamist extremism.

Q: Why is Saudi Arabia an important ally against terrorism? What is it doing to help defeat ISIS?

A: Although Saudis initially were in denial about the threat posed by al-Qaeda, which attracted many young Saudis, they were prompted by terrorist attacks inside the kingdom in 2003 to take a harder line against Islamist extremism.

Saudi religious leaders have denounced al-Qaeda and ISIS, an offshoot that broke away from al-Qaeda’s top leaders.

The Saudi Air Force has launched air strikes against ISIS and the Saudis are working behind the scenes to turn Arab tribes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal