Saudi Arabia after Fahd

August 03, 2005|By Allen Keiswetter

WASHINGTON - The death of Saudi King Fahd and the ascension of Abdullah Abdulaziz al Saud, his half-brother, to the throne portend no major changes in the U.S.-Saudi relations or on issues of great importance to the United States such as oil policy or terrorism.

As crown prince, Abdullah has been the de facto ruler since 1995, when King Fahd had a stroke. President Bush knows King Abdullah well, and the two have met twice at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Principal changes are likely to be at home.

King Fahd and his six full brothers, known as the "Sudairi seven," have led the kingdom through a tumultuous period that has included the takeover of the Mecca mosque in 1979, the oil boom and the economic development of the country, and the first Persian Gulf war. While acclaimed for their political skills, their self-enrichment and lack of piety made them vulnerable to charges of corruption and dissipation.

But King Abdullah is known for his rectitude and a desire to reform the Saudi political system. In the late 1990s, when oil prices still were low, he lectured the royal family about the need for reform and financial belt-tightening. His hand will now be strengthened. But changes will come slowly because the royal family operates by consensus.

A principal question at home is how the royal succession will line up. Prince Sultan, one of the Sudairi seven who is deputy prime minister and defense minister, was named as the new crown prince. But he has a history of health problems and is only slightly younger than 81-year-old Abdullah. Therefore, look for several changeovers in the next few years.

At some point, the royal family will have to face up to when to move in the line of succession from the sons of founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud to his grandsons.

The al Saud kings are likely to rule for a long time. While there are signs of discontent in the kingdom, there is little reason to believe it has reached revolutionary proportions. For the most part, the royal family represents the modernizing elite, and the threat to its rule is from religious conservatives such as Osama bin Laden rather than from impatient liberal reformers.

What is likely is continued slow progress toward expanding political participation, such as the municipal elections held this spring and greater governmental accountability, because of internal pressures and international demands for transparency as a prerequisite to joining the World Trade Organization.

Abroad, close U.S.-Saudi relations are threatened by rising anti-Saudi sentiment in the United States and rising anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab world generally.

It will be the job of King Abdullah as well as President Bush to continue to find common interests: fighting terrorism, securing the world's oil supply at fair prices, achieving Middle East peace and finding a new system of security for gulf region. That's where the Saudis could play a make-or-break role with regard to Iraq and Iran.

I could not agree more with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that now is the time for diplomacy. This is going to require patience, not just persistence, as the United States justifiably seeks democratic change in the region and to curb violent forms of Wahhabism and as the Saudis understandably seek to guard their Islamic values in a globalizing world.

Allen Keiswetter, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and former Arabian Peninsula Affairs director at the State Department.

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