The history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a nation-state is short. It was founded in 1933 as a direct result of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Since foundation, it has been ruled by a single family. Five of the sons of the first king, Abdulaziz, have ruled in succession and the country has become the world’s single largest oil producer. King Abdullah, who passed away on January 23, had reigned since 2005 and may be regarded as a cautious reformer in a country, which in developmental terms still lags far behind many other developing nations despite its phenomenal wealth. The Kingdom has never been able to free itself from its post-colonial origins, and it is a key ally of the Western nations that were midwives at its birth, and of America. The Kingdom is regarded outside the Arab world as having an appalling human rights record, and a country where the status of women has barely advanced since its foundation. Apart from its vast oil wealth — which looks set to continue to be sustained into the foreseeable future — it derives revenue from being the custodian of the holiest sites in Islam and is adherent to the austere orthodox school of religious thought.
Perhaps, the most significant achievement of King Abdullah is that he was able to hold the Kingdom together at a time of increasing internal and external tensions. His latter days saw the rise of the Islamic State (IS), which the Kingdom regards as a threat in no lesser way than other states do, and it joined the American-led coalition that is currently conducting air strikes against IS positions in Syria and Iraq. To the south, Yemen is crumbling fast, the global price of oil has halved in the last year and the Kingdom is hedged by uncertainty and conflict almost on all sides. King Abdullah’s other achievement lay in his ability to balance the tribal forces that have at times threatened to destabilise the country with rivalries that go back millennia. The new king Salman has promised continuity in energy and foreign policy, and little change may be expected.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2015.