Abdullah's succession moves quickly

Saudi royal family delivers a message of continuity

August 02, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - In a region that is increasingly defined by instability, the Saudi royal family moved promptly and assuredly yesterday to project an image of certainty, for the benefit of both domestic and international stability. At the same time that it was announced that King Fahd had died, Crown Prince Abdullah was declared the new monarch, and the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, was named the new crown prince.

Within three days of the announcement, a funeral and ceremony to declare loyalty to the new king is to be completed.

The rapid announcements were intended as more than a smooth procedural handoff. There was also a message of continuity to be delivered, an assurance that there would not be any major changes in international or domestic policies. Saudi officials said they expected that, if anything, relations with the United States might grow closer, as the new king has a warm relationship with President Bush.

Full authority

But with full authority, King Abdullah - who has been the de facto ruler for years during King Fahd's long illness - might move with a freer hand. The new king, who is considered a reformer in the context of a society that prides itself on conforming to long-standing tradition, might push for greater citizen participation in government, more rights for women and amnesty for some political prisoners, political analysts said.

Immediately after King Fahd died, the members of the royal family had a secret meeting to select and agree on the new king and heir. King Fahd will be buried today after a funeral in Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque. After the funeral, the new king will participate in what amounts to a Saudi coronation: People from all walks of society - tribal leaders and intellectuals, politicians and regular citizens - will visit him at a palace where they will swear their allegiance to him.

Providing clarity

In Riyadh, the capital, and across the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, there was a sense of sadness over the death - but also a sense that its finality might contribute to stability by ending a process of slow-motion succession. The king's death and the ascension of the crown prince provided clarity about who exactly is running the country.

Still, stability is a fragile concept in the Middle East, and in particular in Saudi Arabia, a country that has its roots in the 18th-century alliance between a tribal leader, Mohammad bin Saud, and a religious leader, Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab, who preached a strict form of Islam that objected to many allowances for modernity.

Although the royal family pulled together to quickly head off any vacuum in power, the new king is already 81 and his crown prince was born in 1928. The royal family is thousands strong, including older brothers and relatives who feel that by tradition it is their right to ascend to power, as well as many younger princes who want to see the next generation have a chance at leading.

Unofficial third spot

For those reasons, many political analysts looked to the still-vacant third spot in the royal chain of command for any possible fault lines in the family - and for a possible indication of the nation's future leadership. The unofficial third spot is often granted the title of second deputy prime minister, a role Prince Sultan held. The expectation is that post will go to Prince Nayef, who is the powerful interior minister, but another candidate for the position is Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh.

The tension between members of the Saud family, which has sought to use the nation's enormous oil wealth to catapult it into modernity, and the religious leaders, who have tried to keep out everything from satellite television to non-alcoholic beer, still threatens to tear at the fabric of the society.

Those divisions have created political factions within the royal family, and those divisions led to expectations that succession might be troublesome. The new king has often found his efforts stymied, or at least challenged, by more conservative forces.

In his nine years as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, the former crown prince has managed to push for changes including the nation's first popular elections, which were held this year to elect local councils.

He also managed to move the education of girls out from underneath the control of the religious authorities, to the ministry of education.

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