The Magazine

The King Who Would Be Reformer

Is there a silver lining behind the new Saud?

Aug 29, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 46 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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ON AUGUST 2, CROWN Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, a man in his early 80s, ascended the throne of Saudi Arabia--and all hopes for reform in the Saudi kingdom began to be put to the test.

For years, Saudi dissidents had speculated that Abdullah alone among the sons of Ibn Saud (1880-1953), founder of the kingdom, understood the dangers to Arabian society represented by Wahhabism, the extreme Islamic sect that Ibn Saud made the state religion. No tyranny lasts forever, and it was inevitable that economic and social development in the peninsula would undermine the alliance, based on intermarriage, of the governing House of Saud and the House of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, responsible for ideology and religion.

Popular opinion had it that one of Abdullah's four wives (out of some 30 he has married over the years) was Syrian, cosmopolitan, and had influenced him to tolerate Islamic and other intellectual unorthodoxy. It was further said that Abdullah encouraged the private practice of Sufism, or Islamic spirituality, and various traditional Islamic customs rigorously suppressed since the Wahhabi takeover in the 1920s. One forbidden observance--common among Muslims from West Africa to Indonesia--is the commemoration of the birthday of Muhammad, which the Wahhabis and Saudis reject on the ground that it resembles the Christian celebration of Jesus' birth.

Late last year when he was still only crown prince, Abdullah lent credence to speculation about his sympathies when he appeared at the funeral of Seyed Mohammad Alawi Al-Maliki, a non-Wahhabi cleric and leading Sufi teacher. Al-Maliki, before his death, had been a prominent victim of Saudi repression; yet Abdullah praised him for his religious and patriotic fervor.

But aside from his reputed interest in Sufi mysticism, Abdullah had other incentives to follow a different road than that of his predecessor, King Fahd, and of Fahd's powerful brothers, Princes Sultan and Nayef. As Saudi defense minister, Sultan personally enriched himself on military contracts with the United States, and Nayef, the interior minister and an extreme Wahhabi, was the first leading figure in the kingdom to blame the atrocities of September 11, 2001, on Zionism. Fahd, Sultan, and Nayef were all members of the "Sudairi Seven," born of old Ibn Saud's favorite wife, Hussah bint Sudair. Abdullah, their half-brother, was outside the Sudairi circle.

All these men, admittedly, are old. Nevertheless, Abdullah may have just the necessary window to begin a transition to normality for his country, from its present standing as the richest but most backward ideological state in the world, a kind of Middle Eastern North Korea or Cuba.

Abdullah lent encouragement to those seeking reform only a week into his reign, when he ordered pardons for three liberal dissidents who had been framed for allegedly seeking to overthrow the monarchy. The trio, Drs. Abdullah Al-Hamed and Matrook Al-Faleh and the poet Ali Al-Domaini, were sentenced to six to nine years' imprisonment in mid-May. Their real offense was to have circulated a petition calling for a written constitution, in a state whose only basis for governance has always been the Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran.

Western observers have joined Arab and other Muslim Saudi-watchers in seeking to read the signs coming out of the kingdom. Some note that pardoning political prisoners is an old royal custom on taking control, and dismiss the release of the three dissidents as perfunctory. And recent religious pronouncements have also been subjected to analysis. One fascinating example is a series of citations from writings and interviews given by Sheikh Abd Al-Muhsin Al-Abikan, a leading state cleric, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and accessible on its website.

A religious conservative, Al-Abikan has recently delivered himself of commentaries that are not unknown in the broader Islamic world, but which have previously lacked real support from the Saudi/Wahhabi ruling class. He asserts, for example, that there is no basis for jihad in Iraq; that Sunni terrorists in Iraq are using resistance to occupation as a pretext for corruption and the abuse of women; that suicide terrorism is a crime against civilians; and that the al Qaeda terror offensive has been a catastrophe for the world's Muslims. In his most arresting comment, he says that Arabs began the war with Israel and that Israel established peace in the areas it occupied. He also repeatedly declared his willingness to confront bin Laden or any of his supporters, and called on the terrorist chief to surrender and repent. (This is, after all, a man of religion, not a government official or antiterrorist investigator, speaking.)