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The Binding of King Abdullah

The new king of Saudi Arabia will need help if he wants to reform his country.

12:00 AM, Aug 19, 2005 • By ALI H. ALYAMI
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THE LONG-AWAITED DEATH of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia brought most of his subjects more hope than grief--hope that the new king, Abdullah, might move toward freedom of speech and other democratic reforms. It is hard to imagine that this sentiment is shared by the large and profligate ruling family. One powerful wing of the ruling family, the six remaining Sudairi brothers, had dreaded Abdullah's ascent to the throne and had delayed it for more than a decade.

Abdullah knows the Sudairi Six regard him as weak and naive, too lenient toward the captive population, and thus a danger to the absolute rule of the Saudi dynasty. He is unlikely to forget that his half-brother King Saud (1953-64) was ousted from power and exiled to Greece for much the same reason.

Prominent among the anti-Abdullah princes are Sultan and Nayef. Both are in a position to torpedo Abdullah's efforts to reform the system, if indeed he tries. Sultan's titles include crown prince, first deputy to the king, defense minister, inspector general, and general director of aviation. Nayef is interior minister. All secret and regular police, informants, religious police, the judicial and prison systems, all municipalities, mayors, governors, and media fall within Nayef's sphere of influence. These two men's control over internal and external security means that without their consent it will be near-impossible to bring about genuine reform. Given their obvious hostility to Abdullah's earlier embryonic reform gestures, it is evident Sultan and Nayef have both the means and motivation to frustrate the transformation of Saudi Arabia.

PRIOR TO HIS APPOINTMENT as crown prince and head of the National Guard in 1982, Abdullah was largely marginalized. When King Fahd fell ill in 1995, however, Crown Prince Abdullah suddenly became the de facto ruler, at a time when major domestic and international problems loomed. Terrorism was intensifying, the country's economy was faltering, unemployment was very high, and the Saudi people, especially the young, were growing restless. These problems festered, even as the price of oil soared.

Once Abdullah assumed management of domestic and international affairs, he started to talk about national reconciliation, limited elections, women's rights, human rights, and domestic religious tolerance. He encouraged people to tell him what they expected of him and of the government. Abdullah met with reformers and accepted their petitions in January 2003, even telling them, "Your demands are my project." Abdullah also told the reformers, however, that he "could not do it alone." Although Abdullah did not fundamentally alter the regime's harmful policies, his statements sparked exaggerated hopes among Saudis. Inside the royal palaces, meanwhile, Abdullah's moves caused disquiet and fueled Nayef and Sultan's animosity toward him.

Two major considerations prompted Abdullah to reach out to the public: insistent pressure from the international community, especially the United States, for political reforms and guarantees of human rights, and the need to demonstrate to his royal foes that, if pushed too far, he could go over their heads to secure his position. In other words, already as crown prince, Abdullah understood that if he wanted to stay alive and eventually become more than a puppet king, he needed support from sources outside of his family.

WHEN IT COMES TO EXTERNAL SOURCES OF SUPPORT, Abdullah, like his predecessors, relied almost exclusively on the United States to protect him and his family. The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing revelations linking extremism and terrorism to Saudi Arabia's longstanding policies of oppression and extremist religious indoctrination fundamentally changed the U.S.-Saudi relationship and provoked a reassessment in Washington of America's blind support for the Saudi regime.

In the meantime, King Abdullah and his family know that the West is stuck with them until an alternative democratic group of Saudis can be prepared to replace them or until the country has descended into turmoil to the point where a Wahhabi version of Khomeini's revolution is about to seize power. In case of the latter, the West would likely intervene militarily to secure the oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Any reforms that Abdullah may introduce have been and will continue to be predicated on these assumptions. He believes that introducing cosmetic reforms will extend his family's control over the country. The partial and exclusionary municipal elections and the government-controlled National Human Rights and Journalists Associations are good examples of what reform means to the House of Saud, in that they did more to strengthen the position of the ruling family than to increase citizens' political participation.

Nevertheless, Abdullah also knows that even tightly-controlled token reforms can lead to increased public demands. He and his advisers deem this a risk worth taking to solidify his rule domestically and internationally. On the other hand, some other senior family members fear that once the people have a taste of liberty they will demand more, and that could jeopardize their absolute control over the country's people and its wealth.

UNDER THESE CONDITIONS, Abdullah will find it exceedingly difficult to meet his people's expectations and respond to the building international pressure to share power with his oppressed population, especially women, youth, and minorities. Since Abdullah cannot fire Sultan, Nayef, or any other powerful princes, he can either go over their heads and risk being killed or ousted, or ask for external support to help him execute the necessary democratic projects, which would likely provoke the wrath of the Wahhabi religious establishment. In that case, the Wahhabi clerics would probably side with Sultan and Nayef and issue a fatwa declaring Abdullah unfit to rule. Abdullah's final option is to do nothing and be relegated to a mere figurehead. Abdullah is unlikely to settle for that option.

This is where the United States and the rest of the international community could step in. They could help promote a genuine transformation of the institutions that currently nurture religious extremists. They could support the empowerment of Saudi women, who can help tilt the balance in favor of a tolerant, just, and democratic political system. Abdullah is right: He cannot bring reform alone. He will receive only opposition from Sultan and Nayef, the two most powerful men in the country, and from the other Arab and Muslim dictators who rule their people with an iron fist.

Saudi Arabia plays a major religious, political, and economic role in the world. Its destiny should not be left in the hands of a family whose oppressive policies have already proven catastrophic and whose institutions preach hatred and sanction the killing of innocent people all over the world.

Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.