TIME Malaysia

5 Reasons Why Obama Should Steer Clear of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak

U.S. President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walk off 18th hole while playing a round of golf at the Clipper Golf course in Hawaii
Hugh Gentry—Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walk off 18th hole while playing a round of golf at the Clipper Golf course on Marine Corps Base Hawaii during Obama's Christmas holiday vacation in Kaneohe, Hawaii, on Dec. 24, 2014

Washington is having serious trouble finding dependable allies in Southeast Asia

The U.S.’s “rebalancing” toward Asia has two main pillars: being a counterweight to China and securing a free-trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If Washington is to succeed on both fronts, it needs as many friends in the region as it can win. The U.S.’s newest ally is Malaysia, this year’s chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Nation, collectively a growing market, and, on the surface, a modern, democratic, Muslim country. In April 2014 U.S. President Barack Obama paid an official visit to Malaysia, the first sitting President to do so in decades, and, later in the year, played golf with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak when both were on holiday in Honolulu. This November, Kuala Lumpur will host the next East Asia Summit and Obama is due to attend.

But recently, all the news coming out of Malaysia is negative. After becoming embroiled in a corruption scandal, Najib on Tuesday sacked his deputy and Malaysia’s attorney general in an apparent purge of critics. British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing a domestic backlash for pushing forward with a visit to Kuala Lumpur this week despite the snowballing controversy. Here are five reasons why Obama might want to break from Cameron by giving Najib a wide berth.

  1. 1MDB — A Wall Street Journal report has alleged that Najib’s personal bank accounts received nearly $700 million in March 2013 from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government-owned development fund. Najib has protested his innocence and threatened legal action against the Journal. “I am not a thief,” Najib told Malaysian media on July 5. “I am not a traitor and will not betray Malaysians.” The police, the local anticorruption agency, the attorney general’s office and the central bank are investigating the allegations. On July 8, the police raided 1MDB’s office in Kuala Lumpur and took away documents. Even before the latest news, 1MDB was an embarrassment for Najib, who chaired the fund’s advisory board as debts of $11.6 billion were accrued. Such are the suspicions of malfeasance that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ran the country from 1981 to 2003 and has long been considered Najib’s mentor, has repeatedly called for his protégé’s resignation over 1MDB’s alleged mishandling.
  1. Anwar Ibrahim — Najib’s main political rival is once again in prison for a sodomy conviction. Human Rights Watch deemed his five-year sentence handed down Feb. 10 to be “politically motivated proceedings under an abusive and archaic law.” This is the second time Anwar has been jailed for sodomy.
  1. Hudud — Stoning for adultery and amputation for theft are not the kind of punishments meted out by the progressive state that Malaysia purports to be. Yet Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is supporting attempts to introduce hudud Islamic law in the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s (PAS) heartland state of Kelantan, where nightclubs are forbidden and men and women are designated separate public benches. Why is UMNO supportive of recognizing hudud under federal law? Largely because PAS is part of a three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition that is UNMO’s chief challenger. The other partners — Anwar’s Keadilan, or People’s Justice Party, supported by middle-class, urban Malays, and the Chinese Malaysian–backed Democratic Action Party (DAP) — are strongly against hudud. Many analysts accuse UMNO of cynically fostering a radical Islamic bent to widen rifts in its political opponents.
  1. Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa — In 2002, when Najib was Defense Minister, a $1.25 billion contract was signed to purchase two Scorpène submarines from French firm DCNS. Altantuyaa was a Mongolian woman who, knowing French, facilitated negotiations as a translator, and then allegedly attempted to blackmail Abdul Razak Baginda, one of Najib’s aides with whom she was also having an affair, for $500,000 over “commission” payments he had allegedly received. Two policemen posted to Najib’s bodyguard detail were convicted of murdering Altantuyaa on Oct. 18, 2006. Najib denies any involvement.
  1. Prevention of Terrorism Act — Najib campaigned on scrapping the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) but then immediately replaced it with the equally sweeping Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA. The POTA includes practically the same powers as ISA, including two-year detention without trial, and was dubbed a “legal zombie arising from the grave of the abusive [ISA]” by Human Rights Watch. Najib also vowed to repeal the similarly maligned Sedition Act but reneged after his election in 2013. In fact, in April his government extended the maximum jail term under the Sedition Act from three to 20 years.
TIME foreign affairs

This Weekend’s Foreign Policy Must-Reads

A roundup of the smartest takes on politics and global affairs

Healing a Wounded Sense of Morality – The Atlantic

“Moral injury is its own separate trauma with symptoms that can include feelings of shame, guilt, betrayal, regret, anxiety, anger, self-loathing, and self-harm. Last year, a study published in Traumatology found that military personnel who felt conflicted about the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of a combat situation were at an increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior afterwards, compared with their peers who didn’t have that same sense of ambiguity. The main difference between the two combat-induced traumas is that moral injury is not about the loss of safety, but the loss of trust—in oneself, in others, in the military, and sometimes in the nation as a whole.”

For the men and women who fight, wars never entirely end. Nor does the moral responsibility to care for veterans. The better we understand the particulars of the traumas they have faced, the more we can do to help them.

Denmark’s Nativist Threat – Jacobin

“The populist message of the [right-wing Danish People Party] has expanded well beyond attacks on immigration. The party has increasingly campaigned on the safeguarding of welfare rights and social protection, successfully placing themselves to the left of the Social Democrats in the popular imagination (despite having voted for almost all of the recent neoliberal economic reforms). This has allowed them to reach broader electorates that would otherwise be repelled by their harsh anti-immigration stance.”

These are trends that we are seeing across the continent. And while the world focuses on the dramatic brinkmanship that continues between Greece and its creditors, the more insidious threats to European unity continue to grow.

Caucasian Jihad – The Economist

“Russia may hope that letting jihadists leave the country is good riddance. Insurgent activity in the North Caucasus has certainly gone down. The chances of [Islamic State] militants returning are slim; Russia does, in fact, tightly control its borders. Yet Akhmet Yarlykapov, a Dagestan expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says the tactic is short-sighted. Russia itself is faced with a major threat from IS: it recently claimed the entire territory of Caucasus as one of its provinces.”

This is a dangerous strategy, because it presumes that extremism can be stopped at the border. But if the Islamic State can use the Internet and social media to bring recruits to Syria and Iraq, it can also inspire like-minded people to launch attacks where they live.

The Invisible Digital War – Foreign Policy

“Project Shield uses Google’s infrastructure — which has been bolstered greatly to keep services like YouTube and Gmail online — to protect news and human rights-focused websites from [distributed denial of service] attacks. Google allows the websites under its protection to route their traffic through its servers, which are built to withstand even the most massive of attacks, dramatically reducing the load on their partners’ web infrastructure… The initiative, which is currently accepting applications for new sites, protects any organization that is focused on news, human rights, or election monitoring, regardless of their political views.”

Information activism in action. Once upon a time, turmoil in a police state set off a race for the TV and radio broadcast centers. Control of information is now a much more complex operation, and governments and their challengers are playing both offense and defense. Good for Google in creating Project Shield to provide protections for consumers of information and ideas.

Charlie Hebdo’s Multi-Million-Dollar Pile of Tragedy Money – Vanity Fair

“For Charlie Hebdo, the small satirical weekly transformed into a global symbol of freedom of expression by the slaughter early this year of its staff, money has also been an adversary, an idea that sat uneasily with its history and causes… Charlie Hebdo, irreverent mocker of all forms of power, reportedly finds itself sitting on more than $33 million in cash, a once unthinkable sum… All the money, [Charlie Hebdo writer Patrick Pelloux] muses, complicates this rebirth. It raises, again, the question of the paper’s political allegiances. Charlie, in its self-image, is of the left, the scrappy outsider rather than the moneyed insider. It is above all of the school that believes there is a right in Western democracies to laugh at everything, to blaspheme, and to commit sacrilege. It’s an equal-opportunity, anti-clerical mocker unconcerned by bad taste.”

Another collision at the intersection of Ideology and money. “Which side are you on, boy? Which side are you on?”

TIME foreign affairs

This Weekend’s Foreign Policy Must-Reads

A roundup of the smartest takes on politics and global affairs

The Islamic State’s Je Ne Sais Quoi — Foreign Policy

“…the Islamic State may be a psychopathic organization, but that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of recruits attracted to it are. It’s not cynicism, disillusion, and dystopia that the Islamic State is trying to sell, but rather hope and identity, as well as personal and religious fulfillment…And the fact is for all its clever negative messaging to combat the Islamic State’s propaganda, the United States lacks an effective counter-narrative — indeed it lacks a narrative that even begins to compete with the emotional resonance and power of either the online savage theater of choreographed beheadings or the more uplifting appeal of “come and be part of a community that will give you purpose and direction.”

In the battle over hearts and minds in the Middle East, ISIS is mopping the floor with the US; why? There are lots of reasons, but one of the biggest has to be Washington’s weak social media game. Washington does social media like McDonald’s does social media—grudgingly, acknowledging that this is the way the world moves today but secretly pining for the simpler times when it was king…

Don’t get me wrong: ISIS is absolutely depraved and desperate, but it comes across as authentic to its target audience. It is selling hope and the possibility of a different future to the many people who look around at their lives and wish for something, anything else. That’s a powerful message. There are few things that American’s can learn from ISIS, but transmitting authenticity is one of them.

Pols and Polls Say the Same Thing: Jeb Bush Is a Weak Front-Runner – FiveThirtyEight

“Of course, it’s not clear whether money raised through a super PAC or other independent groups differs in its predictive power from money raised by a candidate. Super PACs in their current form are too recent a development to know for sure. If money is predictive because donations from a lot of individuals foretell future support, then Bush’s haul this year is less likely to mean something because super PACs raise a lot from a few donors. If early money matters because it says something about organizational strength, then Bush’s super PAC edge could put him over the top.”

Strong analysis, but why would anyone think Bush is a front-runner? I predict that there’ll be a solid 6 front runners minimum over the course of the race. Donald Trump will not be one of them.

A Private Sector Solution to the Migrant Crisis – Politico EU

“Founded by Christopher and Regina Catrambone in 2014, MOAS is the only private organization of its kind, and has saved the lives of more than 4,500 migrants stranded at sea. The group’s current mission, which began on May 2 and will run until the beginning of October, has already saved around 2000 souls… MOAS is a private enterprise, the only one of its kind, so the movement of its vessels across the Mediterranean is virtually uninhibited, a tremendous logistical advantage.”

I’ve already written about this story earlier in the week. Here’s the short version: there’s a migration crisis in Europe and European governments aren’t doing nearly enough to solve it. Luckily, others have picked up the slack. My pick of the week.

The GOP is Not Going to Win This Election on Foreign Policy – Foreign Policy

“Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination are out-hawking each other on the stump as the campaign gets underway: With the exception of Rand Paul, all the Republican candidates would repudiate the Iranian nuclear deal, would counter Russian aggression more forcefully, give more support to Israel, and exterminate the Islamic State. And even Rand Paul has been trying to stake out less isolationist ground. But there are several reasons to think Republicans are overstating the strength of foreign policy as a winning electoral issue in 2016.”

Sadly, I agree that foreign policy will not win anyone the presidency. But this is where Hillary’s most vulnerable, so it’s going to be far more important than 2012. At this point I’m willing to vote for anyone who can just present a coherent foreign policy that doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. A political scientist can dream, right?

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy

TIME Geopolitics

Watch Ian Bremmer Discuss the Rise of China

While the U.S. struggles at home, China is increasing its presence on the global stage

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and TIME editor-at-large, discusses China’s geopolitical strategy in an increasingly fragmented world—and how the U.S. should respond.

TIME

Watch an Animated Survey of Americans’ Views About Foreign Policy

See where Americans want the next President to take the U.S.

In his new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, TIME foreign affairs columnist and president of Eurasia Group Ian Bremmer discusses the three choices the United States can make about its role in the world. Working with SurveyMonkey, Eurasia Group polled more than 1,000 Americans about how they saw America’s position in the world—and found a surprising generational divide.

TIME foreign affairs

Quiz: What’s the Right Role for America in the World?

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding with Tunisian Minister of Political Affairs Mohsen Marzouk at Blair House, the presidential guest house, on May 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding with Tunisian Minister of Political Affairs Mohsen Marzouk at Blair House, the presidential guest house, on May 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Take an interactive quiz to discover what you think America's role in the world should be

In his new book Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, TIME foreign affairs columnist Ian Bremmer diagnoses the drift in U.S. foreign policy—and offers a few alternatives for the next President. But where do you want to see the U.S. go? Take this quiz and find out:

 

TIME Iran

Nuclear Deal or No Deal

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

Why the U.S. cannot walk away from negotiating with Iran

As March dwindled down toward an unmet deadline, I found myself growing nostalgic for the early days of the Iran nuclear negotiations. The going was tough, of course, but an interim deal was produced–and a wonderful deal it was. Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium. It agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It stopped construction on its heavy-water nuclear reactor. It acknowledged, tacitly, that the lion’s share of economic sanctions would remain in place until a final agreement was done. That was 16 months ago, and much to the surprise of skeptics, Iran has abided by the deal. And almost as surprising, the global coalition–including the Russians and Chinese–has held together and stuck to its guns, much to the credit of the oft-maligned Obama negotiating team. “It is ironic,” an Arab diplomat told me. “The interim deal is better than the deal you’re negotiating.”

Well, of course it is. There is no way Iran would permanently agree to stop its program in return for limited sanctions relief. It has the right, as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to process low-grade uranium for peaceful purposes. And so we have had this messy haggle over how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate going forward, where they will spin and how quickly we will lift the sanctions.

There have been nonnuclear issues on both sides. The proud Iranians have to concede without seeming to concede. The Americans and the rest of the world, but mostly the Americans, have to acknowledge that after 36 years, the Iranian theocrats–caricatured by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and assorted Republicans as half-crazed religious fanatics–can act responsibly.

The atmosphere surrounding the negotiations has also been complicated by a significant upheaval in the region during the past 16 months. The unnatural straight-line national borders drawn 99 years ago by the British and French are disappearing in the sand. The true regional fault line, between Sunni and Shi’ite, is emerging. A full-blown sectarian war looms. The U.S. would be crazy to take sides in this struggle, but events–the rise of ISIS, a barbaric Sunni army–have conspired to nudge us toward the Shi’ite side of the equation. A nuclear deal with Iran suddenly has import it didn’t have before. “It would give Iran international credibility,” says Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. diplomat who has negotiated with Iran in the past, “to go along with the increased influence it has in Iraq and Yemen.” Burns believes we should make the deal if we can, “but the Administration has to focus on rebuilding our relations with the Sunni powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.” (On March 31, Obama lifted the arms embargo against Egypt, which is fighting ISIS-related forces in Sinai and Libya.)

On April Fools’ Day, no less an international expert than Howard Dean opined that the Obama Administration should walk away from the talks and let the sanctions continue to bite Iran until it begs for mercy. A week earlier, the incredible–that is, not credible–former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton modestly proposed that we should just bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities and be done with it. The frustration with the negotiating process was understandable. By persisting at the table, the U.S. seemed more slouchy than strong–especially as the Iranians appeared to walk back parts of the agreement and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged a chant of “Death to America” from a handpicked crowd with a simple “Indeed.”

It would be nice to think that melodrama–walking away from the table, bombing Iran–would have some sort of conclusive effect. But Dean’s plan assumed that the international sanctions would remain in effect if we walked away–a very unlikely proposition, as the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers made it clear that they were satisfied with the outline of the deal the Americans and Iranians were still squabbling over.

Bolton’s bomb throwing assumed that Iran would react as Iraq and Syria did when Israel bombed their nuclear reactors–that is, not at all. But Iran is completely different from the almost-states of Syria and Iraq. It is a real place. It has natural borders on all but one side. It has a 4,000-year history and a distinct culture. It is Persian, not Arab. It has a sophisticated, well-educated populace, which may not like the authoritarian government but is proud and patriotic and very sensitive to disdain from Western imperial powers. Indeed, if we were to bomb its nuclear facilities, the Iranians would quickly rebuild them and rush toward the creation of a nuclear deterrent.

One way or another, that is a reality we have to deal with, even if it involves ongoing negotiation–a prospect that shouldn’t be so painful as long as the lovely interim agreement remains intact.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland


This appears in the April 13, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME foreign affairs

Exclusive: Dalai Lama, Barack Obama Set to Appear in Public Together for First Time

Tibetan leader will participate in the Feb. 5 National Prayer Breakfast where the President is expected to attend. Obama has never appeared publicly with Tibetan leader who is viewed by the Chinese government as a dissident

The Dalai Lama will attend this year’s National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5, marking the first time that the Tibetan leader will appear in public at an event that President Obama is expected to also attend, according to a press aide for Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, who is co-chair of the event.

“The Dalai Lama will be at the breakfast, but he does not have a speaking role,” Casey aide Alex Miller tells TIME in an email. The White House did not immediately confirm the report.

President Obama has previously met with the Dalai Lama three times, despite the strong objections of the Chinese government who considers the Tibetan leader a dissident. In the past, the White House has not allowed reporters to witness the meetings, which have been staged outside the Oval Office in deference to Chinese objections.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual, historically Christian event at the Washington Hilton for hundreds of mostly evangelical and other faith leaders. The President of the United States and First Lady have long attended, and the President traditionally speaks.

Following the Dalai Lama’s last private meeting with Obama in 2014, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned a U.S. diplomat to register his nation’s objections. “The Tibetan issue is the domestic affair of China, and the United States bears no right to interfere,” he said, according to the Xinhua news agency. “Such a move will gravely sabotage China-US co-operation and relations, and will definitely undermine its own interests.”

Senator Casey (D., Pa.) and Senator Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) are co-chairing the congressional side of this year’s event. The breakfast is sponsored by a conservative evangelical group, the Fellowship, run by Douglas Coe. Christians have usually given the keynote address, but last year, U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah, a Hindu, spoke.

TIME foreign affairs

The Most Dangerous Ground in the Middle East

ISRAEL-POLITICS-LIKUD-ELECTION
Menahem Kahana—AFP/Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks during a Likud party election campaign meeting in Tel Aviv on Jan. 25, 2015.

Lipsky is the editor of the New York Sun.

Congress is simply doing what the president should have—listening to the democracy that Iran has declared would be its first target

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steps before a joint session of Congress, he will be entering what I have often called “the most dangerous ground in the Middle East.” It’s not the Golan Heights, or Gaza Strip, or Iran. It’s the constitutional no-man’s-land between the president and the Congress. In all of democracy it’s hard to think of a more dangerous minefield, one that can blow up on either the host and guest or the president — or all three of them.

Netanyahu certainly knows this. His speech March 3 will be his third before a joint meeting. The first two occasions had their downside as well as their up. In 1996, he was a newly elected, free-market-oriented premier, invited to the Hill by, in Newt Gingrich, a newly elevated, free-market-oriented Speaker. President Bill Clinton, whose most frequent foreign visitor at the White House was Yasser Arafat, was still trying to craft an agreement between Israel and the PLO.

The Israeli leader told of, among other things, how as a boy he knew Jerusalem as a divided city, rent by barbed wire. He used the word “dangerous” to describe any assumption that peace could be gained by re-dividing the city. It would never happen, he vowed. “Never,” he repeated, bringing the solons from both sides of the aisle to their feet in a thunderous ovation that could not have been lost on the administration that was hoping to divide the capital as part of a peace deal.

President Clinton, still mired in the soon-to-fail Oslo peace process, was apoplectic. His about-to-be state secretary, Madeleine Albright, loathed the Israeli leader. In the next Israeli general election, a raft of Clinton’s closest political strategists — Stanley Greenberg and James Carville among them — fetched up in the Jewish state to help one of Israel’s most decorated war heroes, Ehud Barak, defeat Netanyahu. Barak won the election, only to lose in 2001, after abrogating his promise not to dicker over dividing Jerusalem.

Ariel Sharon, who followed him, never addressed the Congress, which I always thought was a tragedy. No doubt he would have pulled out his maps — “meps,” is the way he pronounced the word — and lectured the solons on the order of battle. But Sharon did have his quarrels with the American president, George W. Bush, who felt Sharon had crossed a line when he declared that in the Middle East peace process, Israel would not play the role that had been assigned at Munich to Czechoslovakia.

What rescued them was a certain humility, the comprehension that the war that had been launched on 9/11 was bigger than both of them. So they let slide the bumps of public life. Soon after the Republicans gained control of the House in 2010, Congress promptly invited Netanyahu back for a second speech. It was an electrifying moment, made all the more so by the fact that Netanyahu and Obama were then quarreling over whether a settlement with the Palestinians should be done on the 1967 lines.

It was one of the most emotional speeches ever given to a joint session, though Churchill’s first was extraordinary, as was the address in 1986 of the new leader of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino (“Today I have returned — as the president of a free people”). Netanyahu dealt with the tensions with Obama by repeatedly praising him by name, and marking the bipartisan nature of the support Israel enjoys in America. His natural allies were Republicans, but he comprehended most Jews vote Democratic.

What makes Netanyahu’s third appearance before Congress so explosive is not that it somehow undercuts the president’s reception power — the power, as the Constitution puts it, “to receive ambassadors” — or lacks for standing to inform itself. Congress, after all, has its own duties in respect of foreign affairs. It is the branch granted the power to raise an army, provide a navy, declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and regulate commerce with foreign nations.

What makes it so explosive is that the president fears a veto-proof vote on sanctions. Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat who had been chairman the Foreign Relations, has been fighting heroically for a bill to ensure that, if Iran defaults on any nuclear arms pact, sanctions can be promptly restored, or even tightened. The negotiations were launched not just over the objections of Israel but also the doubts of Congress. It is now doing only what the president could have done to start with — listen to the democracy that Iran has declared would be its first target.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME foreign affairs

The Saudi Transition Looks Smooth—For Now

Saudi King Abdullah in 2014.
Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images Saudi King Abdullah in 2014.

Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America in the Reagan Administration.

Behind the scenes, there may be powerful tensions pulling the Royal family apart

The death of the Saudi king does not portend major policy shifts, on oil pricing or on Saudi foreign policy. That policy was the product of an elite (or at least royal family) consensus, which will continue.

The question is whether the last year or two of drift, as King Abdullah grew ill, will now be replaced with strong Saudi leadership. Abdullah was widely respected at home and abroad, in part for his intelligence and in part for his piety. Whatever complaints were lodged against profligate Saudi royals did not apply to him, for his personal faith was very clear. He was in his way also a reformer, for example establishing the Kingdom’s first coed university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. For decades, he and President Mubarak of Egypt were the two most powerful Arab leaders and key western allies. Mubarak fell in 2011, and Abdullah’s health began to fade soon after. The Arab world has lacked responsible leadership recently, although the Emiratis have tried to fill the breach.

What remains to be seen is whether King Salman can now return the kingdom to its accustomed role, or is himself too old. He too has been widely respected, for his decades as governor of Riyadh and his role as family disciplinarian. But he will now have to contend with two major challenges. First, the region is unstable. Iranian power is rising, American power is seen as declining, there is war in Syria and Iraq, and now Yemen is in unfriendly hands. ISIS and Al Qaeda are direct threats to the Royal family. Second, Salman will face internal rivalries in the Royal family itself. The sons of the late king Abdullah will seek to retain some of the influence they have gained in the last few years, but King Salman’s sons will try to wrest it from them. Crown Prince Muqrin is the youngest member of his generation and after him power must pass to the next generation. But to whom? Which clique, which group of full brothers, will take over? Salman, like most of the recent crown princes and kings, is one of the “Sudairi Seven,” seven full brothers of the founder, King Abd-Al Aziz, and the same mother. Abdullah was not; Muqrin is not. The push and pull between the Sudairis in this generation and the next, and all other grandsons of the founder, may be hidden from our view but is likely to be fierce.

So far the succession is smooth. It will look that way for months at least, and Saudi foreign and oil policy will appear little changed if changed at all. But behind the scenes, there may be powerful tensions pulling the Royal family apart.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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