DENVER – As with all political successions, Saudi Arabia’s was inevitable. But it was not inevitable that King Abdullah’s demise – and the emergence of Crown Prince Salman as his heir to the throne – should come at a time of peak instability in a region already buffeted by the type of change that the House of Saud welcomes least of all.
Consider Saudi Arabia’s current security predicament. Twelve years of unrelenting churn in neighboring Iraq is beginning to take a toll on the Kingdom. Indeed, though the sources of Saudi resentment toward the United States are many – support for Israel, negotiations with Iran, pressure on human rights – none is more important than the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In the Saudis’ narrative, the US created the Arab world’s first Shia-led state – and thus a lasting security nightmare – directly on their northern border. Whatever ultimately happens in Iraq’s western and northern regions, much of which are now under the control of the Sunni Islamic State, southern and eastern Iraq will remain Shia. Thus, Shia success there – a relative concept, to be sure – risks inspiring Shia elsewhere to mobilize politically, including in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-majority Eastern Province, where much of the country’s oil wealth is concentrated.
Then there is the Islamic State and its effort to establish a caliphate – a goal that not only implies dragging the Arab world back to the seventh century, but that also takes dead aim at many of the region’s modern borders. The Sykes-Picot line, agreed in secret by the British and the French in 1916, is now in its 99th year and remains the Syria-Iraq border.