The Death of King Abdullah

The death of Saudi King Abdullah adds a new layer of uncertainty to the already chaotic Middle East, including whether his successor will continue pursuing a détente with Israel and how the oil-rich kingdom will approach the dangerous issue of Sunni extremism, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

A leader does not have to be a truly great person to play a historically significant role if placed in a situation that is sufficiently fragile and weird to force such importance on the individual in charge. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who died overnight at age 90, was in such a situation by being in charge in Saudi Arabia, a family-run kingdom that is both weird and fragile, an anachronism in the Twenty-first Century.

Although the Saudi monarchy is still almost absolute, the individual king is not, since he has to contend with factionalism and ambitions within the royal family. But the family politics are just another of the complications that pose a challenge to the man at the top who has to hold the whole thing together, baling wire and all.

King Abdullah, the ailing monarch of Saudi Arabia whose country is playing a power game with its oil.

King Abdullah, the late ruler of Saudi Arabia. 

Abdullah occupied that role for 20 years, the first ten as crown prince and de facto regent when the disabled King Fahd was still alive, and the last ten as king himself. During this time he personally affected many things of importance to the Middle East and to U.S. interests there.

The people of Saudi Arabia are probably better off for having had Abdullah as king than would have been their lot with most other rulers. He recognized the need for the country’s society to modernize and moved in that direction about as much as he could within the severe limits posed by tradition, the religious establishment, and the necessity for consensus.

This was particularly true regarding the role of women, however painfully slow progress in this area has been by the standards of those of us in the West who do not have to deal with those same limits. Probably the clearest manifestations of Abdullah’s intentions in this regard are to be found at the mixed-gender university for science and technology that bears his name.

Abdullah governed in ways that were generally congenial to U.S. interests. This was in large part due not to any particular initiative or insight by the leader but rather because of natural convergence of some Saudi and U.S. interests. This has been true regarding oil prices insofar as a lower price is on balance good for the U.S. economy and Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves, does not want prices high enough to accelerate the move to alternative fuels.

It was during Abdullah’s rule that the kingdom stopped trying to export its extremist problem and instead began dealing with it seriously and directly, and that change clearly was in U.S. interests. The change, however, owed less to conspicuously inspired leadership than to the hard knocks of terrorist attacks within the kingdom.

The feature of Saudi foreign policy that probably did owe the most to initiative by Abdullah was his proposal for linking resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to full recognition of, and making of peace with, Israel by all the Arab states. He persuaded those other Arab states of the wisdom of this concept, and the concept is known today as the Arab League peace plan. It is still out there, and reaffirmed just the other day by the Arab League, ready to be taken up by anyone who genuinely wants peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.

Saudi Arabia has a system of political succession that by its very nature cannot continue indefinitely. The kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz, made it thus when he determined that he should be succeeded by his many sons, one after the other, rather than using the usual vertical monarchical succession based on primogeniture.

The succession has not reached the end of that line of brothers and half-brothers yet, but with Abdullah’s passing it is getting closer. The succession to the throne of 79-year-old Prince Salman is not reassuring; Salman already has shown signs of losing his faculties.

Abdullah did make a move a couple of years ago that lessens the political uncertainty; he effectively designated as next in the succession after Salman the 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of Abdul Aziz. Muqrin, who now is the crown prince, seems to have a fair amount on the ball. If he becomes the principal decision-maker, with or without Salman alive, during the next few years that probably would be good for the kingdom.

Things in Saudi Arabia, still a strange place, could have been much worse than they have been under King Abdullah.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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7 comments for “The Death of King Abdullah

  1. Rufus Petersen
    January 25, 2015 at 23:06

    One might get the impression Pillar feels some sympathy towards the Saudi regime. Such apologism seems not dissimilar to the defense of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. After all, slavery was just one of those unfortunate things which was essential for the development of the nation- and the South was half of that nation. One could hardly expect the Old South to wash its hands of the institution when there was so many profits to be made. Certainly it’s wrong to judge the abuses of the past on the terms of today’s moral relativism; we all know Negroes are people too, don’t we, but we intelligent ones don’t expect such lofty standards from our forbears.

    I find that argument to be more acceptable than this line of horse puckey Pillar is advancing here- in these days when virtually everyone has access to instant communications. Sympathy for the Devil? Pardon me while I snicker. Abe above hit it on the head with practically the same thing I’ve saying verbatim.

  2. MrK
    January 24, 2015 at 03:02

    911 Link To The Saudi Royal Family

    King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is a direct relation of HRH Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

    Abu Zubaydah, who was Al-Qaeda’s Chief Operations Officer, fingered HRH Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz as his contact/handler. HRH Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was in the United States on 9/11, and was flown out from Lexington, KY to London on 15th of September 2001 by the Bush Administration, while all other flights were grounded.

    From Craig Unger in the House Of Bush, House Of Saud, p. 265, quoting Gerald Posner’s While America Slept:

    “When Zubaydah was confronted with men passing themselves off as Saudi security officers, his reaction was not fear, but instead relief,” Posner writes. “The prisoner, who had been reluctant to even confirm his identity to his American captors, suddenly started talking animatedly. He was happy to see them, he said, because he feared the Americans would torture and then kill him. Zubaydah asked his interrogators to call a senior member of the ruling Saudi family. He then provided a private home phone number and cell phone number from memory. ‘He will tell you what to do,’ Zubaydah promised them. ” (58) The name Zubaydah gave came as a complete surprise to the CIA. It was Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the owner of many legendary racehorses and one of the most westernized members of the royal family. ”

    From House of Bush, House of Saud, by Craig Unger, the passenger list of the flight from Lexington Kentucky to London:

    Date: 9/15/01 Time: 12:28:22 PM
    PAX Manifest for the B727 trip: LEX to London, England Toda

    Name (year of birth, nationality, passport number)

    HRH Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (1958, Saudi, 50A)
    HRH Prince Sultan bin Fahad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (1982, Saudi, 406A)
    Ahmad O.H. Albiebi (1961, Saudi, c163782)

    • elmerfudzie
      January 25, 2015 at 12:48

      911 has little to do with personalities, individual plutocrats or sycophant governments. This event, was deliberately staged by elements within the US “deep state”. It was a direct result of a long standing and collective refusal of the military industrial complex to convert our economy back to a Hamiltonian, and civilian managed government. It’s about moving inconceivable amounts of money around the world, turning blood into gold via the terribly old, divide and conquer scheme. JFK began hinting at refashioning our economic mainstay, that is to say, uncoupling the industrial from the military complex, to limit it’s ability for projecting brute force, with a plan to transform raw violence into benevolent hand outs resembling the “Marshall plan” specifically aimed at third world countries, consequently he was murdered. At the same time a like minded and influential figure in Europe, Alfred Herrhausen also opposed this endless war for endless profit, one world tyranny, appearing on on the horizon, consequently he too was murdered. It’s all coming home to roost now. Our government will never find the courage or resolve to dismember these “corporate entities” and limit their charters to annual review in light of the public good. Thus, the whole planet will find themselves dominated banksters and corporate CEO’s.

      • elmerfudzie
        January 25, 2015 at 13:24

        911 has little to do with personalities, individual plutocrats or sycophant governments. This event, was deliberately staged by elements within the US “deep state”. It was a direct result of a long standing and collective refusal of the military industrial complex to convert our economy back to a Hamiltonian, and civilian managed government. It’s about moving inconceivable amounts of money around the world, turning blood into gold via the terribly old, divide and conquer scheme. JFK began hinting at refashioning our economic mainstay, that is to say, uncoupling the industrial from the military complex, to limit it’s ability for projecting brute force, with a plan to transform raw violence into benevolent hand outs resembling the “Marshall plan” specifically aimed at third world countries, consequently he was murdered. At the same time a like minded and influential figure in Europe, Alfred Herrhausen also opposed this endless war for endless profit, one world tyranny, appearing on the horizon, as a consequence, he too was murdered. It’s all coming home to roost now. Our government will never find the courage or resolve to dismember these “corporate entities” and limit their charters to annual review in light of the public good. Thus, the whole planet will find themselves dominated banksters and corporate CEO’s.

  3. Abe
    January 23, 2015 at 23:54

    The Saudis under King Abdullah have beheaded more people than ISIS, treated women drivers and atheists as terrorists, and flogged people who speak out. (Indeed, the Saudi government and ISIS are virtually indistinguishable).

    http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2015/01/western-politicians-media-rush-issue-tributes-king-led-world-beheadings-whipped-bloggers-criticism-banned-women-driving.html

  4. elmerfudzie
    January 23, 2015 at 21:59

    Now that most of President Obama’s time in office has come to an end, we see just how stubbornly foolish and nonsensical he and his Neo-con clique have been towards peaceful solutions in the middle east. Every warning ever uttered by four star Marine Corps General, Joseph Hoar, now retired, was for the most part, ignored. Will the White House now take time to reflect on the generals’ opinions and concerns about the House of Saud? The various, shall we say in polite terms, peccadilloes and vices found in several of King Abdullah’s next of kin? Will these inferences also go unnoticed by Obama? What shape will The WH “plan B” assume should the House of Saud boil over into family feuding, followed by civil insurrection?

    • January 25, 2015 at 17:09

      This apparent double-think by Western governments is of course nothing new. Ever since US President Franklin D Roosevelt signed a strategic pact with the founding monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, in 1945, the kingdom was given an ironclad commitment of American military protection – and freedom to practice its feudal system regardless of human rights or democratic demands within the kingdom. America set up a “tyranny in perpetuity.”
      http://mycatbirdseat.com/2015/01/western-fawning-to-shore-up-saudi-house-of-cards/

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