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Dunsmore: Saudi Succession

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf have often been at odds over American support for Israel. But otherwise, for decades they shared the same strategic objectives for the region – maintaining stability and keeping the oil flowing.

However over time, major things happened which seriously complicated that simplistic policy. These were the notable events.

The Iranian revolution - which turned Iran into an aggressive Shiite Muslim theocracy and major competitor with the Sunni Muslims of Saudi Arabia for regional influence.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq - in overthrowing the despot Saddam Hussein, removed Iran’s number one enemy. And by ceding control of the country to the Shiite majority, America made Iraq, Iran’s number one ally.

The Arab Spring - when millions of Arabs throughout the Middle East dared to challenge decades of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria – they also potentially threatened the monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

And the emergence of the most extremist Islamic movement in modern times - ISIS - or the Islamic State as it calls itself - became a danger to the entire region.

One might add, that in the meantime, the United States began producing enough energy so that it was no longer dependent on Arab oil.

Small wonder the Gulf states are worried about the future, and are especially concerned that if there is a nuclear agreement between the major world powers and Iran, then free of economic sanctions, Iran will become an even more powerful adversary.

The meetings this week, were never going to produce anything like a NATO-style American commitment, to protect Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The fact that new Saudi King Salman decided at the last minute not to attend, may have reflected his low expectations for this summit.

But as some Mideast experts have suggested, the state of the 80 year old monarch’s failing physical and mental health, may have gone into that decision. In any case, King Salman sent his newly named successors - his nephew, the crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and his son, the deputy crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman.

While it has received little attention in most of the American news media, this change in the line of Saudi succession - from the sons of Saudi founder King Abdulaziz to these particular grandsons - is a huge deal.

A major benefit of these meetings for the president and his national security team, will have been the opportunity to persuasively assure these new, young Saudi leaders that the United States still values their friendship and deeply cares about the future of their region. Given current uncertainties, that will not have been an easy sell.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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