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Saudi dynasty has new king, same agenda

Abdullah is a reformer, but new king's hands are tied by hard-liners.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 2005


The passing of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Monday marks the end of a reign that saw both the rise of militant Islam inside Saudi Arabia and a strengthening of ties with the United States.

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Any shift in power in the kingdom, the world's largest oil producer, could cause economic ripples across the globe. But King Fahd's half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, has been running the day-to-day affairs of the country since 1995.

While King Abdullah is seen as a reformer, many analysts doubt his coronation will lead to major changes in domestic or foreign policies.

Supporters in the US view Abdullah as a king who could nudge the dynasty away from authoritarian rule to more free speech, women's rights, and modest political reform. But they also note that he wasn't able to make big changes in his caretaker role. Whether he has the authority and the desire to bring political change to Saudi Arabia is one of the key questions that the US hopes will be answered in the early months of his new reign. Washington will be looking for Abdullah to deepen the country's commitment to rooting out Islamist militants, to increase oil production to reduce high global prices, and to make some moves toward political reform.

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, also suggests that Abdullah might dust off his Middle East peace plan following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in mid-August.

"He may want to put a stamp on his first days of rule,'' he said. "It's possible that Abdullah says, 'Now that I'm king, I'll give more money to the Palestinian Authority, and take a higher profile on trying to coax this process forward.' They know that they need to win points in Washington and that's one way of doing it.''

A lame-duck king?

But on domestic issues, most Saudi watchers doubt he will be much more powerful than he has been to date, given his age, his brothers around him who don't share his political views, and the questions left unresolved as to which line of grandchildren will eventually inherit the throne.

"You can almost argue that Abdullah is a lame-duck king,'' says Toby Craig Jones, a Saudi analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels think tank. "Even if he is what everyone says he is - the one who's most committed to opening and liberal change in Saudi Arabia - he can't act on his own."

For instance his powerful brother Prince Nayef, who as minister of interior for the past 25 years has been in charge of all internal security and spy agencies, is close to a number of hard-line clerics and is suspicious of both political change, and close US ties.

Immediately upon King Abdullah's appointment, his younger brother Prince Sultan, a member of what's seen as a more conservative clique, was named crown prince, next in the line of succession.

Princeton University professor Michael Scott Doran argued in Foreign Affairs magazine last year that Saudi Arabia is shaped by two competing political trends: A group of Westward-looking reformers, and a conservative Wahhabi religious establishment that sees America as decadent and favors quasi-religious rule.

"Abdullah tilts toward the liberal reformers and seeks a rapprochement with the United States, whereas [Prince] Nayef sides with the clerics and takes direction from an anti-American religious establishment,'' Doran argued, saying Abdullah has backed more free speech, expressed support for democratic reforms, and reached out to Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority, who are hated as apostates by the Saudi's dominant Wahhabi clerics, who favor an exclusive and intolerant version of Sunni Islam.