Power behind throne is Saudi of a different stripe
AMMAN, JORDAN — Ibn Saud was a desert warrior who subdued the rebellious tribes of Arabia in 1932 and named the resulting country after himself. He also had some interesting ideas about child rearing.
Saudi Arabia's first king was once quoted as saying: "I train my own children to walk barefoot, to rise two hours before dawn, to eat but little, to ride horses bareback."
It is a standard of discipline and toughness that is hard to imagine in today's oil-rich kingdom, where wealthy princes are more at home in Gucci loafers than padding shoeless across a scorching desert.
Ibn Saud had no idea about the dangers of Osama bin Laden or antiterrorism alliances, but he did know that for a country and its leaders to survive in such a treacherous corner of the world, those leaders - his sons - would need to be tough and disciplined.
If there is one of Ibn Saud's 37 sons who has retained those lessons, it is Crown Prince Abdullah, according to Middle East experts.
As the United States presses its war on terrorism in Afghanistan, and the Middle East braces for possible broader turmoil inspired by Mr. bin Laden, Abdullah is poised to play what analysts say will be a critical role in deciding how best to maintain the stability of Saudi Arabia.
One indication of his toughness came in reaction to recent US press reports critical of Saudi cooperation in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington. Many of the hijackers were Saudi citizens, a fact the Saudi government is reluctant to acknowledge.
"The vicious campaign being waged against the kingdom in the Western media is nothing but the manifestation of a deep-rooted hatred directed against the course of Islam," Abdullah said. "Commitment to Islam and the homeland is not up for debate."
Although some Middle East analysts in Washington say he is anti-American, others say he seems to be the right man at the right time to help protect Saudi Arabia and, by extension, US interests there.
"He is the best thing we could have going for us," says a US-based analyst with long experience in the kingdom. "You can't say that revolution is impossible in Saudi Arabia, but it is highly unlikely as long as Abdullah is alive and functioning."
Abdullah's success - or failure - will have a direct impact on the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia sits atop roughly one-quarter of the world's oil supply, and any disruption of the kingdom's oil production would have a major impact on the international economy.
Since the mid-1990s, when King Fahd suffered a stroke, Abdullah has taken on a greater share of responsibility. At 77, he has become de facto leader, running the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom.
The gradual emergence of Abdullah in recent years has some observers in Washington concerned, in part because of his affinity for Arab and Islamic causes - including his anger over what he sees as a US double standard in its support for Israel regardless of Israel's harsh and illegal treatment of the Palestinians in the ongoing intifada.
Others say that while Abdullah may not be as pro-Western and as low-key as King Fahd or Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister and third-ranking Saudi royal, he understands the importance of Saudi Arabia's ties to the US.
In addition, these analysts say, it is this greater distance from the US - his perceived independence from Washington - that may help insulate the Saudi government from attempts by bin Laden and others to portray the kingdom as an American pawn.
Earlier this year, Abdullah repeatedly refused to make an official visit to Washington. The refusal came in protest of the failure of the Bush administration to oppose violent Israeli actions taken against Palestinians.
"This stance contributed significantly to boosting his standing, not only among Saudis but throughout the Arab world," says Ibrahim Karawan, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. "By showing a degree of autonomy, he becomes more popular."
To James Akins, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdullah has all the necessary traits to earn respect throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds.
"Abdullah is an Arab nationalist and a good Muslim, and is incorrupt," says Mr. Akins. "And he is popular."
It is a far different description of a Saudi royal than is offered by bin Laden and many critics of the Saudi government. There are, of course, corrupt, un-Islamic Saudi princes, analysts say, but Abdullah isn't among them. And Abdullah is the prince holding the reins of power.
"There is a lot of talk that Abdullah is anti-American, I frankly don't see it," says F. Gregory Gause, director of Middle East Studies at the University of Vermont. "He has more concern about Palestinian issues from a personal viewpoint than other people in the family might have, and to some extent some people might take that as anti-American."
Mr. Gause says under Abdullah's leadership there has been no change in the fundamentals of the US-Saudi relationship. The US military is still operating from Prince Sultan Airbase southeast of Riyadh. And last summer when the kingdom invited foreign oil companies to bid on a $50 billion gas project, American firms walked away with the lion's share of business. "If Abdullah was profoundly anti-American, that would not have been the case," Gause says.
Ambassador Akins agrees. "He is running the country, and doing it quite well."
Among his most important achievements recently, Abdullah balanced a state budget that has been drowning in red ink for years, following weak oil prices. And he is working to curb the excesses of some of the lesser princes in the 20,000-member royal family.
Born in 1924 to Fahda, the eighth of Ibn Saud's 16 wives, Abdullah has two sisters but no full brothers. Abdullah himself has four wives, seven sons, and 15 daughters.
A devout Muslim, he is said to conduct weekly meetings with top members of the religious establishment to listen to their counsel. In addition, he is commander of the 60,000-man Saudi National Guard, a tremendously important institution in the kingdom. He was appointed commander in 1962 - at age 38 - by the much revered King Faisal. Abdullah has held the post ever since.
The National Guard was originally made up of the finest of the fierce Bedouin warriors who helped Abdullah's father, Ibn Saud, unite the tribes of Arabia. Like the Bedouins who fought at his father's side on camel and horseback, Abdullah is said to love horsemanship as well as the stern lessons of the desert, as did his father.