Abdullah was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Old Abdullah was as dead as a door-nail.
So what now?
The crown prince, Abdullah’s half-brother, Prince Salman, has taken over, but it might not be that easy. After all, it wasn’t too many years ago that people were speculating about what Egypt would be like under the rule of Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal. And the accession of a 79-year-old to the throne does not give the impression that the House of Saud is vigorous and ready to take on the numerous challenges it faces.
And it faces many. This is not an optimum time for a transition. The House of Saud has headed up an obnoxious regime that has spent billions to prepare the ground for the jihad that is now aflame all over the world, by propagating its virulent view of jihad everywhere. Now the Saudis’ massive expenditures to export the jihad doctrine have come back to bite them in the form of the Islamic State, a self-proclaimed caliphate that denies the legitimacy of the House of Saud (and every other government other than its own) and has vowed to conquer it (and every other country, but it is right on the Saudis’ doorstep).
The Saudis want the U.S. to take care of their Islamic State problem for them. They can’t easily do it themselves, because they have taught their own people the idea that the umma, the worldwide Muslim community, should ideally be ruled by a caliph, the successor of Muhammad as the political, military, and religious leader of the Muslims, and so if they move too decisively against the Islamic State, they might be facing an uprising from within. Several weeks ago, a Muslim cleric from Saudi Arabia was killed while fighting for the Islamic State. And Sheikh ‘Aadel Al-Kalbani, former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, has declared: “ISIS is a true product of Salafism and we must deal with it with full transparency.”
Salafism is what the Saudis have used their oil billions to spread throughout the world. And given the fact that Saudi Arabia’s plush rehab facility for jihadists has proven to be a spectacular failure, King Salman may be spending a considerable part of his declining years battling the jihadis to whom his predecessors gave their guiding ideology.
If, on the other hand, the Saudis don’t move decisively against the Islamic State, and Obama continues his cosmetic, face-saving airstrikes and continues to reject strong action of his own, Saudi Arabia may before too long be facing an invasion from without. Maybe not a full-scale invasion, but certainly an escalation of individual acts of jihad terror. In fact, Islamic State jihadis killed three Saudi guards at the Iraq border just a few weeks ago.
The Iranians, meanwhile, are always jockeying to become the leader of the Islamic world, and in that Saudi Arabia is one of their chief rivals. But Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels have just won a major victory in Yemen, and Iran has just concluded a military pact with Russia. This could be the Shi’ites’ moment, in a way that could bode quite ill for the House of Saud. Vladimir Putin is clearly trying to reestablish Russia as a world power, and he may think that the death of Abdullah provides him with a grand opportunity to weaken a U.S. ally (however unreliable the Saudis have actually been as an ally). Perhaps now would be just the time for an uprising of the Saudis’ considerable and harshly oppressed Shi’ite minority, emboldened by the Houthi example and backed by Iran.
Could the death of Abdullah be the Iranians’ moment? Or the Islamic State’s? Time will tell – but one thing it is almost certain not to usher in is a time of peace and stability.