The Blog

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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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.