Forbes magazine recently ranked the top 70 most influential leaders in the world and ranked Saudi King Abdullah in 6th place. I would argue that the ruler of Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the top four most consequential leaders of today on par with the U.S., Russian and Chinese presidents. President Barack Obama's observation that what happens in another part of the world affects us here at home could not be closer to reality and is the reason why King Abdullah matters to global stability.
As the world's top crude oil producer and owner of 20% of the world's remaining oil reserves, Saudi Arabia holds the key not only to America's wallets but also to the global economy. What happens in Saudi Arabia can touch every corner of the globe. For example, if King Abdullah decides to use oil as a weapon it could directly impact American consumers and cut into disposable income. Luckily, the King views his stewardship of 270 billion barrels of crude oil as a means to allow the global economy to function smoothly and without price disruptions. Imagine for a moment what the hate-mongering Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khameni, would do if he controlled the world's largest reserves of petroleum.
Not surprisingly, the world held its collective breath as it viewed with suspension the drama of succession within the royal family following the death of King Abdullah's half-brother Crown Prince Sultan. Despite what most Saudi experts expected, the transition happened in an atmosphere of dignity, calm and unity. Following a meeting with the Allegiance Council (the King established the council in 2006 to give all 35 male offspring - or their male heirs -- of Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdulaziz, a chance to choose their next leader) the 85 year-old monarch met with Allegiance Council and as a result this body appointed Interior Minister Prince Nayef as Crown Prince. The humanity of the King -- who was recovering from his third back surgery in less than a year -- was also on display when he personally received the coffin of his half-brother upon arrival for final burial in the Kingdom.
When one meets with King Abdullah it becomes clear very soon that this is a man of honor, piety, integrity and honesty. Ordinary Saudis I have met - worshippers outside a mosque in Taif or businessmen in Jeddah or woman in Riyadh or engineers in Aramco (Saudi Arabia's state oil company) - all echo the same refrain about King Abdullah: he is the anchor of Saudi stability and the driver of true reform in the Kingdom. One such reform with enormous consequences is the King's decision to delegate more responsibility to the next generation of Saudi Arabia's rulers who are Western oriented. Both his sons - Prince Miteb who commands the National Guard and Prince Abdulaziz who is Deputy Foreign Minister -- as well as Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (Deputy Minister of Interior) and Prince Khalid bin Sultan (Deputy Defense Minister) are leaders of the next generation who will carry the torch of reform into the 21st century.
While some in Washington may express frustration with the pace of the King's reform agenda, there is little doubt it is anchored in a vision never before seen from the Saudi royal family. Shortly after becoming King he delivered a speech in Mecca about his vision for the Muslim world: "Fanaticism and extremism cannot grow on an Earth whose soil is embedded in the spirit of tolerance, moderation, and balance. Good governance can eliminate injustice, destitution and poverty." Herein lies another reason why the Saudi monarch is consequential to world peace. As custodian of Islam's two holiest sites, King Abdullah is a firm believer in faith as building bridges of understanding between cultures. He views being a good leader and serving others as his religious duty. Luckily for the West the Saudi monarch sees no place for religion but in the human heart and not on the streets as a means to cause conflict. This is in sharp contrast to those who wage war in name of religion - whether al-Qaeda or the clerics in Iran. Beyond the King's relevance to his country's reform process, King Abdullah is Washington's best partner in responding to global challenges, whether that challenge is climate change, homelessness resulting from man-made and natural disasters, the fight against religious extremism, a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or stabilizing crude oil prices.
Saudi Arabia's strategic heft as an energy giant, its heavyweight political status in the Arab world, its critical role in shaping the future of the Muslim world and the wealth of its financial reserves and overseas assets (estimated at more than $1 trillion, most in U.S. Treasury Bills) make this U.S. friend invaluable and its leader of consequence to international peace and prosperity.
In the current combustible dynamic of a fragile Middle East, Washington and its European allies are fortunate to have King Abdullah as their partner.