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Saudi Arabia: New King, Old Dance

January 25. 2015

Saudi Arabia: New King, Old Dance

by Avi Melamed

King Abdullah Bin Abd-Alaziz, the sixth king of Saudi Arabia, died on January 23, 2015 at age of 91.

King Abdullah Bin Abd-Alaziz, ruled Saudi Arabia for ten years from 2005 to 2015. He was the twelfth son, out of 36 sons and an unknown number of daughters, of the founder of the Saudi Arabia Kingdom Abdul Aziz Al-Saud (1932-1953).

Following King Abdullah’s death, Crown Prince Salman was announced the new King of Saudi Arabia.

King Salman is 79 years old. He was appointed the Crown Prince following the death of two of his brothers – Prince Sultan who died in 2011 and Prince Nayef who died in 2012. All three are sons from the same mother, Hussah Al-Sudairi, one of King Abd Al-Aziz Al-Saud’s wives – she died in 1969.

King Abduallah Bin Abd-Alaziz’s mother was Fahda bint Asi Al Shuraim. The current Crown Prince is Muqrin, the youngest son of Abd Al-Aziz Al-Saud, born in 1945. He is the son of a different mother (who is of Yemenite origin).

King Abdullah ruled during one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Middle East – the outbreak of the events known as the Arab Spring. During his rule, the Kingdom knew both progress on various issues, as well as growing social and economic challenges.

While Sunni Arab States are disintegrating, militant Islam is gaining momentum, Arab societies are experiencing massive turbulences, and the Sunni-Shiite rivalry is deepening and growing throughout the region, King Abdullah was perceived by many in the region – and in the world – as a responsible, calculated, solid leader, as well as a cautious reformer. In the face of growing challenges, both regionally and domestically, King Abdullah strived to enhance stability.

King Abdullah’s domestic, as well as foreign and regional policies, were primarily characterized by a diplomatic, cautious and mediating approach. For example, the King initiated and encouraged agreements between the disputing sides in Lebanon as well as between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Though his efforts did not succeed or last, it does not necessarily indicate the weakness of the king; it is rather mostly a manifestation of the complexity of the conflicts.

In the face of the growing intimidation of Militant Islam, the King initiated and supported activities aimed at enhancing inter-faith dialogue and tolerance.

However, on some issues the King did not hesitate to conduct an aggressive, decisive policy. For example, it was because of his pressure that the Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, withdrew from Lebanon in 2005. The King rushed to send his armed forces to prevent a coup in neighboring Bahrain and to defend its dynasty.

The King led intensive diplomatic efforts aimed to restrain the growing Iranian intimidation. However, his policy was not only a diplomatic one. The King did not hesitate to use military force in order to signal to the Iranians that he would not tolerate the crossing of red lines. That was the case in Bahrain, that was the case in the war against the Houti Shiite tribes in northern Yemen (November-December 2009), and that was the case in the war in Syria where Saudi Arabia supports, arms and finances the Syrian Rebel groups and primarily “The Islamic Syrian Front.”

King Salman was King Abduallh’s full partner in the shaping and implementation of Saudi policies. Therefore, Arab analysts predict that King Salman’s “policy will be similar to Abdullah’s.”

Naturally, many wonder if the transition itself will result in turbulence and instability in Saudi Arabia. Given the inner challenges in Saudi Arabia, as well as the turbulence in the Middle East, it is an important question.

I do not foresee instability taking place in Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future. In my assessment, stability will be kept in Saudi Arabia. One should note that the same day King Abdullah was buried, the new King was sworn in and the Senior Leadership of Saudi Arabia formally announced allegiance to the new King.

One of Salman’s first steps as the King is very interesting and meaningful. He ordered that the next Crown Prince, after Prince Muqrin, will be Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is the grandson of Abd Al-Aziz Al-Saud. King Salman’s move is meaningful because the current Crown Prince – Prince Muqrin – is the last son of Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. By nominating Mohammed Bin Nayef as the first Crown Prince from the second generation (i.e. the grandson of Abdul Aziz Al-Saud) King Salman conveys a message of continuity and stability of the Kingdom. And indeed, the name of the game in Saudi Arabia is stability.

The stability of the Saudi Monarchy stems from a couple of factors:

First, the Monarchy represents the fabric, founded on a tribal and familial base, which preserves the stability of the existing socio-political-economic system. In many ways, the Monarchy is the social fabric and the social fabric is the Monarchy.

The second factor is the enormous wealth of Saudi Arabia which enables the Monarchy to carry out large scale social and economic programs to meet the needs of the Saudis. The 2015 Saudi national budget is about USD $230 billion – the biggest budget ever in Saudi history.

A third factor is the deep emotional identification of the population with the Royal Dynasty, based on two central components. One component is the legitimacy of the Saudi Royal Dynasty on a religious and cultural basis. Saudi Arabia is located in the Arabian Peninsula which is the cradle of both the religion of Islam and Arab culture. The formal title of the Saudi King is the “Servant of two scared religious sites of Islam.” The other component is the admiration of the Monarch. Saudi culture and society is a tribal one, where values of loyalty, devotion, and obedience to the leaders are deeply rooted. Ceremonies like the Bay’ah, the Oath of Allegiance, or the Ardah Dance, the Saudi formal dance in times of war, peace, and joy that go back to the early times of Arab culture, manifest the centrality of these values and sentiments in Saudi society. One must not underestimate the importance of the factor of emotional identification. In the period that has elapsed since the Arab Awakening began, it has been shown more than once – in Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia – that the emotional identification of the public with the Monarchy and with the Monarch, fills a central role in maintaining the stability of the regime.

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Avi Melamed

Former Israeli Senior Official on Arab Affairs and former Intelligence Official and educator, Avi Melamed today is an Independent Middle East Strategic Intelligence Analyst, regional expert and lecturer specializing in the current affairs of the Arab and Muslim world and their impact on Israel and the region.

His expertise includes: The Arab awakening; Arab perspectives on Israel; Emerging challenges and opportunities in the Middle East; Evolving forces in the region and their current and future impact on Israel’s strategic environment, etc.

Avi has most recently been appointed the Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College with offices located in Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where among other responsibilities he leads a year-long program entitled “Inside the Middle East – Intelligence Perspectives,” designed to ensure that the next generation to be in positions of influence in the United States will have a more intimate understanding of the Middle East and will apply methods of critical thinking regarding Middle East Affairs in a way that will result in a more accurate reading the Middle East reality and which will better serve the West’s interest.

Mr. Melamed has a proven record of foreseeing the evolution of events in the Middle East and their impact on a local and regional level.

His knowledge and wide and varied experience offer a behind the scenes insider’s view of the constantly-changing Middle East landscape and insight into future regional implications.

His outstanding analytical abilities, unique understanding of the Arab world and the Arabic language, decades of experience working in Arab speaking areas throughout the region, direct access to sources, and networks throughout the Arab world resources allows him to keep his finger on the pulse on the Arab world and has positioned him as one of the most well-rounded and insightful analysts in his field.

In his work as an analyst Avi provides intelligence analysis, briefings and tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policy makers, international media outlets as well as a wide variety of organizations and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East affairs. His tours and briefings, based on Arab sources, decades of field experience, policy design and intimate connections throughout the Arab world, offer an insider’s view of the constantly-changing Middle East landscape and future regional implications.

In the public sector, Avi held various government and Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions. Fluent in Arabic and Israeli- Jew with a unique understanding of Arab society and culture, Avi spent over twenty years living in Arab cities and communities throughout the region, often in high-risk positions at sensitive times. During the first Intifada he was appointed the youngest-ever Deputy Advisor on Arab affairs to the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek and later he served in the Ehud Olmert administration as Senior Advisor. He was instrumental in developing Israeli policy in and around Jerusalem, and represented the city in local and international forums. He held various Intelligence and Counterterrorism field positions in delicate areas on behalf of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli government, and Israeli security and intelligence services.

He is also the founder and creator of Feenjan – Israel speaks Arabic, a non-profit initiative which presents contemporary Israeli society and culture to the Arab world in Arabic, and serves as an online platform for Israelis and Arabs to discover and discuss issues of common interest.

In the private sector Avi facilitates relationships between Israeli and international firms and potential partners in the Arab world.

Through all of Avi’s efforts, as a speaker, an analyst, a writer, and an entrepreneur, he is a bridge builder. He dedicates himself to enhancing the Arabic, English and Hebrew speaking audience’s comprehensive understanding of the Middle East and of each other.

Avi is currently writing a book which will be a resource for policy makers around the world when it comes to Middle East Affairs. Avi has authored two books, Separate and Unequal – Israel’s rule in East Jerusalem, published by Harvard University Press and Ubrusi, A Novel.

He is a frequent guest on English and Arabic networks including Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic, his articles are translated into multiple languages and are available on international news websites.

Avi has degrees from The Carmel Institute for Military Research, George Mason University, and The Hebrew University.

Avi is a frequent contributor in Arabic, Hebrew and English to many news outlets including Al-Arrabiya, Al-Jazeera, BBC, CBN, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, etc.

He provides briefings to many local and international organizations including AIPAC; American Jewish Committee; American Jewish Congress; Birthright; Foreign Diplomats and Embassies; Friends of the IDF; Georgetown University; Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation; Herzeliya Interdisciplinary Center; Israel Border Police Senior Command; Israel Defense Forces; Israel Ministry of Defense; Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Israel Police; Israel Prison Authority; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Jewish Community Relations Council; Jerusalem Foundation; Jewish Federations of North America; Jewish National Fund; Hillel; J-Street; Keren Hayesod; Peres Center for Peace; Princeton University; The Israel Project; Tufts University; University of California, Berkeley; the United States Army; World Bank; World Presidents Organization, etc.

3 responses to “Saudi Arabia: New King, Old Dance

  1. Sadly, Mr. Melamed left out the Israel/Palestinian connection here. The Arab peace proposal is one of the most important documents that the King helped put together. It calls for the Arab recognition of Israel (imagine that!), full diplomatic association and an end to the hostilities. Netanyahu rejected this proposal outright, but to have neglected to write about this when giving an overview of King Abdullah shows an extreme lack of judgement by Mr. Melamed.

  2. thank you avi for your thoughts on Abdullah. I hope you are right that the stability in Saudi Arabia continues because turmoil there would be a nightmare, especially now that yemen may descend into chaos. there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Israel and what are your thoughts on the upcoming election and Netanyahu’s possible electioneering in front of the u.s. congress?
    thanks and all the best.
    mitch in Peterborough,ontario

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