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King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010.
King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010. AP

King Abdullah's Death Shows Saudi Arabia's Declining Clout

Jan 23, 2015

Ten years ago, the death of a Saudi king would have sent shock waves through Washington. Today, as the Kingdom recovers from the death of King Abdullah yesterday, Saudis don’t carry the same clout. In part, that’s because the U.S. is much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than it was a few years ago, as U.S. companies have reinvented the way oil and natural gas is produced. Hydraulic fracturing has opened access to liquid energy deposits locked inside once-impenetrable rock formations, and breakthroughs in horizontal drilling methods have made the technology more profitable.

By the end of this decade, the United States is expected to produce almost half the crude oil it consumes. More than 80% of its oil will come from North or South America. By 2020, the United States could become the world’s largest oil producer, and by 2035 the country could be almost entirely self-sufficient in energy. Relations with the Saudis are no longer a crucial feature of U.S. foreign policy, and the surge in global supply, which has helped force oil prices lower in recent months, ensures that others are less concerned with the Saudis as well.

In addition, outsiders are not worried that King Abdullah’s death will make the Kingdom unstable. Newly-crowned King Salman is plenty popular, and other key players—Crown Prince Muqrin, National Guard head Prince Miteab, and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef—have pragmatic working relations with the new king and with one another. The succession process will appear uneventful from the outside, but Salman will spend the next several months consolidating his authority and building a stable balance of power among factions within the family and across the government.

Another reason the Saudis matter less: They’re now bogged down in the region. Saudi worries that Iran can make mischief even under harsh sanctions only raises fears should a deal be made with the West later this year over its nuclear program, which would ease those sanctions, Tehran would only become a more troublesome rival. But even if there is no deal and sanctions are tightened, Iran will probably become more aggressive to demonstrate its defiance, creating new headaches along Saudi borders.

How will the Saudis manage its local security worries? Along the border with violence-plagued Iraq, the Saudis are actually building a 600-mile wall complete with five layers of fencing, watch towers, night-vision cameras and radar. Terrorist violence in neighboring Yemen and the fall of its government this week add to the Saudi's sense that their country is under siege. They’re building a wall along Yemen' s border as well. Fights with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will demand attention and money.

King Salman is 79, and he’s been central to Saudi policymaking for 50 years. One day soon, we’ll see generational change in the Saudi leadership. When that happens, we might see a fresh approach to the Kingdom’s two biggest problems: Its inability to build a dynamic, modern economy to harness the energies of Saudi Arabia’s millions of young people and its growing marginalization as an international political and economic force.

That day has not yet come.

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His next book, Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World, will be published in May

Rich Nation, Poor People: Saudi Arabia by Lynsey Addario

Fatima Hazazi stands in front of boxes of medicine she requires monthly to treat her kidney problem at home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 2, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, Fatima and her family rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Fatima Hazazi stands in front of boxes of medicine she requires monthly to treat her kidney problem at home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Despite the extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much a part of life in Riyadh as wealth.Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
Fatima Hazazi stands in front of boxes of medicine she requires monthly to treat her kidney problem at home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 2, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, Fatima and her family rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudi children play on old furniture outside of the home where they live in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
One of twelve children living in a house where Yayeh Mussawa rents with his family plays in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudis beg in a line on a street known to locals as 'the beggers' street,' in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudi children do dishes and live in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Selma Saleh, a poor Saudi woman, sits on her bed in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Matara stands with her two boys next to a sink without water, where she lives in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
A young man begs on the streets in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.   Despite an extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much an aspect of life in Riyadh as wealth. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudi citizens rest after presenting Saudi Billionaire HRH Prince al Waleed bin Talal with petitions for his help at a desert camp outside of Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, February 27, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Billionaire HRH Prince Waleed bin Talal, greets Saudi citizens at a desert camp outside of Riyadh to accept their petitions for his help, in Saudi Arabia, February 27, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Billionaire HRH Prince Waleed bin Talal, greets Saudi citizens at a desert camp outside of Riyadh to accept their petitions for his help, in Saudi Arabia, February 27, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Billionaire HRH Prince Waleed bin Talal, greets Saudi citizens at a desert camp outside of Riyadh to accept their petitions for his help, in Saudi Arabia, February 27, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Young Saudi women pray in a friend's home before going out to dinner in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 25, 2013.  Though statistics are difficult to confirm, youth unemployment and poverty are on the rise in Saudi Arabia.  While society is increasingly open to women in the workforce, there are still limited jobs in which women and men can work side by side.  There are a great number of highly educated Saudis who can not find work suitable for their qualifications.  (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
A Saudi woman bids on an Arabian Horse at an auction outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.   Despite an extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much an aspect of life in Riyadh as wealth. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudi men pray at dusk at a camel market outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.   Despite an extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much an aspect of life in Riyadh as wealth. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudis stand around after an auction for Arabian Horses at a club outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.   Despite an extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much an aspect of life in Riyadh as wealth. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Fatima Hazazi stands in front of boxes of medicine she requires monthly to treat her kidney problem at home in Riyadh, S
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Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
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