(January 26, 2015 / JNS) The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Thursday (U.S. time) shouldn’t change how the Gulf nation treats its relations with Iran and Israel, experts say. Saudi Arabia remains determined in its opposition to the Iranian nuclear program, and while that gives them at least one shared interest with Israel, a Saudi ambassador’s anti-Israel remarks at the United Nations on the same day as Abdullah’s death served as a reminder that the Saudi-Israeli relationship isn’t exactly friendly.
Abdullah, who died at age 90, was succeeded as king by his half-brother, Deputy Prime Minister Salman bin Abdul Aziz. While Iran continues to negotiate towards a deal on its nuclear program with the P5+1 powers, the Saudis “are very alarmed by Iran’s strong position in Iraq and Yemen, as well as Lebanon and Damascus,” said Bruce Riedel, director of The Intelligence Project and senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution think tank.
“They see Iran as a major promoter of disorder in the area and a threat to their interests,” Riedel told JNS.org.
Strategic considerations aside, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also adversarial on an ideological level because Saudi Arabia is the de facto leader of the Sunni Muslim world, while Iran is at the forefront of the Shi’ite Muslim world. In addition to this inherent religious conflict, the Iranians see themselves, rather than the Saudis, as the natural inheritors of the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad and by consequence, the leaders of the Mideast region.
“A lot of the political [and] military rivalry that you see [between these countries] is driven by underlying ideological tension,” Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, told JNS.org.
The Saudis are opposed to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon because what they “want most of all is to be the center of gravity,” Berman explained.
“They think a nuclear Iran would naturally be the dominant player in the region, and they’re going to stop that any way they can,” he said.
The emerging conflict in Yemen may also keep the Saudi-Iranian relationship hostile in the post-Abdullah era. Yemenite President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his cabinet resigned on Thursday after Houthi rebel gunmen held the president hostage in his own residence, trying to extract concessions from the government on control of the country. Additionally, the Houthis—who are Shi’a Muslims—took over the capital city of Sanaa.
Iran has sent arms shipments to the Houthis, while the Saudi and Yemen governments are allies. Iran’s involvement may have been seen as minor meddling at first, but as the Houthis drove in and seized Sanaa, the Iranians “wanted to become more and more involved, sending [their own] advisors, and also sending Hezbollah advisors from Lebanon,” said David Ottaway, a Middle East expert from the Wilson Center think tank.
“[Iranian involvement in Yemen] has been increasing steadily over the last few months, and this of course is infuriating the Saudis. … The Saudis see the Iranians [as] kind of sneaking around… and the Saudis care a great deal about what’s happening in Yemen because they have a long border with it, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (a terror group the Saudis oppose) is based in southern Yemen. So this is the major concern, whether [it be for] the old king or the new king or the king to come,” Ottaway told JNS.org.
Saudi Arabia’s response to the crisis in Yemen, Ottaway said, will depend on its outcome.
“If the south pushes ahead with secession, the Saudis might be very tempted to support that because they see the Iranian-backed Houthis as an even worse problem than the presence of al-Qaeda in southern Yemen,” he said.
Though he isn’t certain, Berman expects the Saudis’ stance on Iran to remain similar under the new king.
“The new king is going to have to put his domestic house in order, swap out some advisors,” Berman said. “He may have very deep-seated views on things that are not quite the same as [those of] his predecessor, but I think that in the main the Saudis are going to be as strong negatively with regard to Iranian nuclearization as they were before… and maybe more active [on the issue]. But we don’t know that yet.”
The Iranians, meanwhile, “are going to test whether Saudi Arabia is weak and can be exploited, and whether or not Saudi Arabia is weak and therefore is more likely to compromise with Iran than it was before,” said Berman.
“It’s not clear that [the Iranians] are going to get the answer that they are looking for, but they are certainly going to try,” he said.
On other fronts, since taking over the Saudi throne in 2005, King Abdullah had developed a reputation around the world as a reformer king who sought to balance his desire to modernize his nation with its conservative Islamist traditions.
After Abdullah’s death, former President George H.W. Bush called him a “wise and reliable ally,” and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) praised how the late king “pushed for the modernization of the [Saudi] education system, curbed the authority of the religious police, and extended women the right to vote and run in municipal elections.”
But Abdullah’s tenure was not without controversy. Despite officially opposing radical Islamist terror groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia has continued to “export a brand of Islam that’s very fundamentalist, [and] very intolerant even of Shi’a and other Islamic groups,” Ottaway told JNS.org.
Women still do not have basic rights such as the right to drive a vehicle in Saudi Arabia, and recently revealed cell phone video footage showed the country’s practice of publicly decapitating people as punishment for crimes.
Nevertheless, some Israeli leaders praised Abdullah after his passing. Former Israeli president Shimon Peres called his death “a real loss for peace in the Middle East,” while current President Reuven Rivlin said Abdullah “worked to honor the sensitivity and sanctity of Jerusalem and sought to promote his vision for a prosperous region.”
In 2002, Abdullah proposed the Arab Peace Initiative—an attempt normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world. The plan called for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the disputed territories and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee issue based on U.N. Resolution 194. But Abdullah’s plan was overshadowed at the time by the terrorism of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising), and many Israeli leaders remain skeptical of the plan.
Israeli praise for Abdullah came despite the fact that on Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.N. had blamed Israeli “occupation” for the global rise in anti-Semitism at the first-ever informal U.N. conference addressing anti-Semitism.
“Colonization and occupation fuels anti-Semitism… occupation is an act of anti-Semitism. It threatens human rights and human kind,” said Saudi Amb. Abdallah al-Mouallimi, who spoke on behalf of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Countries.
Though they are both allies of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia have never had formal diplomatic relations. But in recent years, there have been rumors that the Saudis and Israelis have covertly cooperated on plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Additionally, when he issued a statement on Saudi television decrying the “collective massacre” in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge last summer, King Abdullah did not mention Israel by name. The Brookings Institution’s Riedel, however, cautioned against reading too much into the omission of Israel from those remarks.
“Saudi Arabia doesn’t believe it shares common interests with Israel. Some Israelis may believe there are common interests, [but] the Saudis see that as a fantasy,” Riedel told JNS.org.
Ultimately, Ottaway believes that the Saudis’ leadership change will have minimal effects “on any issue” because the country’s direction has never been dictated by a “person policy.” Riedel agrees.
“I expect continuity not to change [under] King Salman,” said Riedel. “He has been at the heart of Saudi decision-making for 50 years and is unlikely to make any dramatic departures. That will also hold true for Crown Prince Muqrin (who has been named Salman’s successor).”