The Middle East – along with concerned leaders all over the world – was rocked this week by the news of Saudi King Abdullah’s sudden death. The monarch’s demise, and his ostensibly seamless replacement with his 79-year-old half-brother, raised many significant questions about the future of the region.
The incoming monarch, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, was greeted by the Western press with everything from portents of the twilight of Saudi power (in the words of Brian Katulis of The Atlantic) to warnings about the chaos raging all around, in Yemen, in Syria and Iraq (referred to by CNN as simply “ISIS”) – and in Iran. Indeed, Iran, ISIS and the “regional cold war” (just how cold is it?) featured prominently, along with oil, in the press coverage of the royal succession. How, according to the media, does septuagenarian Salman figure into all this?
Politico’s Mohamad Bazzi opined this weekend that if Riyadh’s ‘suspicion’ toward Tehran and its various regional proxies persist under Salman, it will become more difficult to contain the conflicts and tensions in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere; Bazzi also likened Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Sunnis of Lebanon to that of Iran with the Shi’ite forces in Iraq. That these are not the best grounds for comparison is evidenced by a recent editorial on The Economist, which declared that “Iran is doing better than its rivals at expanding its influence in an unstable region” as “Tehran can claim, with only a pinch of hubris, to run three Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.” The advice to decrease suspicions would be irresponsible advice while Iran pushes forward.
Indeed, Riyadh’s geopolitical weakness – especially as compared to Tehran’s strength – was a recurring theme in much of the Western coverage of this week’s political transition. Accordingly, some outlets, like the Financial Times, envisioned Saudi as surrounded by chaos, constantly staving off “nightmares of encirclement.”
And Iran? RT and Reuters reported that it’s “taking a lead” in engaging with its Saudi rivals, while Bloomberg suggested in an editorial that perhaps Riyadh and its aging, ailing monarch just won’t be able to keep up with a “Middle East is changing much faster than the House of Saud.” As US President Obama reinforces his “critical alliance” with the Saudi monarchy amid a changing power balance in the region, we are left to wonder, is Riyadh still a match for Tehran?