The new king in Riyadh

August 03, 2005

ASSESSING U.S.-Saudi relations following the death of King Fahd requires us to return to Crawford, Texas, and the April visit of then Crown Prince Abdullah. The meeting between the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and President Bush reaffirmed the close relationship of the two countries and set the parameters for their dealings on all the key topics - oil, terrorism, Middle East peace and political reform.

The commitments reached then are a good indication of what matters to the now King Abdullah and the course he will pursue as successor to his half-brother. Common interests will reinforce U.S.-Saudi cooperation, but the royal family's preference for stability may impede the pace of reform encouraged by Washington - reform that is critical to moderating the influence of an extreme fundamentalist sect of Islam dominant in the kingdom.

At the level of king to president, the personal relationship between Abdullah, who oversaw the government during his half-brother's long illness, and Mr. Bush augurs well for U.S.-Saudi relations. The appointment of a new Saudi ambassador to Washington in the weeks before King Fahd's death underscores King Abdullah's view of the importance of the relationship. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the king's nephew and ambassador to London, comes with a thick portfolio of intelligence and terrorism issues. He knows intimately the personalities and landscapes that dominate America's terrorism fight, from Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan.

Terrorism waged by extremists concerns both Washington and Riyadh. Since Saudi nationals carried out the 9/11 hijackings, the kingdom has suffered its own terrorist attacks, which resulted in strong countermeasures by the Saudi government. Saudi efforts to break the terrorist-financing network, while slow at the outset, have greatly improved the regulation of Islamic charities and mosques. But more needs to be done to stem the flow of cash couriers who can easily find their way to Iraq.

The more difficult challenges involve moderating the influence of a strict form of Islam that dominates the kingdom (in large part because of past Saudi government intervention) and bringing about political and economic reforms to gainfully engage young Saudis. While King Abdullah has pushed some reforms (he called the first municipal elections this spring), other members of the ruling family are more conservative.

Mr. Bush and the king agree on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But either side could make a case that the other isn't doing enough to bring it about. Iraq poses difficulties for both. The force of the insurgency, the Shiite-dominated government, the potential for civil war in Iraq - each presents problems for the ruling Saudis. Rather than serving as a model for democracy, the outcome of the Iraq war could prove destabilizing to Saudi Arabia, yet another in the growing list of problems the administration faces in bringing the war to a just end.

During the Crawford meeting, oil was selling at $54 a barrel and the president was pushing for relief. But there's not too much the Saudis can do to bring the cost of oil back down given the demand. They are producing at capacity, and will have to keep at it and persuade their OPEC colleagues to do the same.

Continuity has been the word used to characterize the next phase of U.S.-Saudi relations. But King Abdullah, no longer a monarch in waiting, would enhance both countries' interests by pursuing a steady, progressive course on reforms.

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