Which way Saudi Arabia

Category: Middle East, World Affairs Topics: Saudi Arabia Views: 4871

"THE KING is dead, long live the king!" In the past two days this expression has been used, and overused, by members of the Saudi Royal Family to avoid comment on what may happen to the kingdom in the wake of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud's death. 

Though a shadow of himself since he suffered a stroke in 1995, King Fahd's historic prestige and political connections at home and abroad kept him and his entourage at the centre of decision-making in Riyadh. Though the new king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, was left in charge of the day-to-day business of the kingdom in that period he was not able to alter fundamentally the course of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, which owns the world's largest oil reserves, was in effect on autopilot for a decade. 

So, where will the kingdom be heading, both at home and abroad, under its new ruler? George Bush has described King Abdullah as "a safe pair of hands", but will Saudi Arabia be able to revive its strategic partnership with the United States, which collapsed on 9/11? Despite Abdullah's strenuous efforts, that relationship has not so far been repaired. I fear that perhaps it cannot be. 

More immediate is how Saudi Arabia reacts to the recent dramatic changes in the Middle East. Since the US intervention in Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a tide of democracy has been lapping at the corrupt, autocratic regimes in this region. 

The kingdom finds itself the odd man out between the the cautiously reforming countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf mini-states on the one hand, and the traditional despotic regimes such as Libya, Sudan, Syria and Iran on the other. 

So which way will Saudi Arabia face? Earlier this year the kingdom cast off its oldest Arab ally, Syria, after the Syrians broke their pledge not to harm Lebanon's former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, a Saudi citizen and protege of the Saudi Royal Family, by having him assassinated. The kingdom withdrew its ambassador from Libya last year after uncovering a plot by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to have Abdullah, then Crown Prince, assassinated by a hit squad. Relations with Sudan, which served as a base for anti-Saudi operations until a couple of years ago, remain cool at best. 

Although he masterminded a detente with Iran a decade ago, King Abdullah would also be apprehensive about Iran's new leadership under President Ahmadinejad, who assumes power this weekend. In an interview last month President Ahmadinejad dismissed a suggestion that Iran should create an alliance with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. "These are not states but petrol stations," he quipped. Many Saudis now assume that Iran will develop a nuclear arsenal and that they, too, may have to seek one if only to restore the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. 

All this means that King Abdullah has nowhere to turn except to the emerging bloc of nations that have opted for social and economic reform and a measure of democracy. But this is fraught with the danger of uncertainty. The kingdom's other important longstanding Arab ally, Egypt, is heading for uncharted waters with the introduction of pluralist elections after pressure from Washington. Relations with Iraq, of course, remain uncertain. No one knows whether its future regime will become part of a new Shia crescent in the region and thus set itself up in a hostile camp to Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia. 

But what is clear is that Saudi Arabia needs allies in its fight against domestic terrorism. Despite the injection of billions of dollars into religious schools, foundations and associations, the Muslim religious establishment has failed to provide the kingdom with an insurance policy against terrorists engaged in a war of bloody attrition against the House of Saud. 

But to see off the radical threat, King Abdullah not only needs new foreign alliances, but a change of domestic strategies too. In the best-case scenario he would shift the cornerstone of his regime away from the traditional religious-tribal authorities to a new alliance in which the emerging urban middle classes play a central role. This means choosing reform over reaction and political pluralism over faith-based obscurantism. 

King Abdullah has already indicated some preference for such a course. Over the past decade he has broken many taboos. He became the first senior Saudi figure to speak publicly of reform and democracy, and to acknowledge the existence of minorities, notably the Shia, in the kingdom. He also initiated the kingdom's first elections which, though limited to local government and excluding women, struck a chord with most Saudis. His credentials also include the purging of more than 3,000 extremist preachers from the mosques and Koranic schools, the creation of a human rights commission, and the hosting of a series of public debates on women's rights. 

King Abdullah would have to work fast to establish an agenda that addresses the needs of a nation where two thirds of the population are aged below 30. So if the new king opts for a strategy of change, the question remains whether the dynasty, and the broader establishment, would go along with it. Despite much speculation about an impending power struggle within the House of Saud, the new king would be able to cope with any opposition. The fact that King Abdullah is where he is, on a throne coveted by almost all of his 19 surviving half-brothers, is a sure indication of his political savvy and talent for survival. 

"We are like camels," Crown Prince Sultan once told me. "In fair weather we scatter in the prairie but we band together in rough weather." Saudi Arabia is experiencing some of the roughest weather in its history. 

Amir Taheri is an author and commentator on the Middle East

  Category: Middle East, World Affairs
  Topics: Saudi Arabia
Views: 4871

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Older Comments:
For those who dont know Amir Taheri is a neocon associate, and an Iranian monorchist. Need I say anything else ?

"...Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a tide of democracy has been lapping at the corrupt, autocratic regimes in this region. "

Where is the "democracy". Does it come with Haliburton; or Paul Bremer's 97 legal orders; or the daily violence and Abu Gharib? Maybe is the DU that has contaminated the air and their water systems?

Democracy: Power for the people by the people
Islam: Authority lies with Allah (SWT) and not with his creations.

"Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf mini-states on the one hand, and the traditional despotic regimes such as Libya, Sudan, Syria and Iran on the other. "

Reform in Morocco, Algeria, & Egypt? These countries attack Islam. They are also no different from the other mentioned countries. They are all tyrannical and they all steal the wealth of their countries.

"Syrians broke their pledge not to harm Lebanon's former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, a Saudi citizen and protege of the Saudi Royal Family, by having him assassinated. "

???? Is that based on fact or hearsay?

"White man's burden" never ceases to amaze... but what's more amazing is the idiots that wait for it expecting cure to their ills.
Look at South America to see how it faired under the leadership of USA.

Until we realise and act on the fact the Muslims are Muslims no matter what their Nationality is; we are all brothers and should behave like brothers and until we do expect things to get worse. Nationality is peace of trash and works against Islam as it divides us.

"...No, you will be numerous at that time: but you will be froth and scum like that carried down by a torrent (of water), and Allah will take the fear of you from the breasts (hearts) of your enemy and cast al-wahn into your hearts."
al-wahn: fear of death and love for this world

Cropped my reply due exceeding limit.

Dr Sir,
Your article is timely.This country was looked up as a model by many muslim countries in the past
but now since it has been in the lurch its no more.with all its resources and political supports now enjoyed the King should not waste any time to cope with the political changes happening in the world.
Short term and long term objectives should be clear.It should not loose its Muslim Friends while trying to pulkl along with the Superpower.
Ther should not be left any role to be played by SCHISMS.Its 21st century now.Who believes in the
One Allah and His all Prophets are Muslims.Some country has been quietly trying to annihilate the faith of the Muslims sowing seeds of tussle for trival issues.The kingdom has to mature quickly and start acting based on rationale and sense rather than based on emotions and egoes.a second CRUSADE should not be allowed to take place on the Earth.
The resources of the Muslim countries must be pooled together,though not easy, to campaign for
higher studies in Science and Technologies by extending sufficient scholarships to students from around the world whether Arabi or Ajami.
May be some country has been advising otherwise
just contrary to what is practised by them.
It should be remambered - the instruction for preparation for struggle or war against enemies
when war was a certainty, in a chapter of the Holy
When Pakistan could acquire Nuclear Technology
against the wishes of the Superpower why not others with sufficient resources?
Lastly the Kingdom should not play at the whims of the west, though it can be a friend,in the name of fighting terrorism and removing fanatics.
It should not be forgotten that Religion of Islam
teaches no violence butenlivens the SPIRIT of worshipping the only God, Allah and its that spirit that enabled innumerable followers of the Prophet to accept death with smile in a number of
battlefields.Therefore religeous education along with the contemporary knowledge m