SAUDI ARABIA: The virtuous king
Adel Al Toraifi
January 24, 2006
BIRMINGHAM, England -- During the first signs of the late King Fahd's illness in 1995, Saudis woke up suddenly to the question of succession.
Saudis had come to picture King Fahd as a modernist leader well versed in domestic politics. Inheriting a welfare state in the late 1970s due to high oil revenues, Fahd enjoyed a strong and powerful image among his citizens and abroad. Indeed, Fahd's public persona was so strong that it overwhelmed everyone else, including the crown prince, Abdullah.
In 1997 King Fahd handed Abdullah authority over two key issues in Saudi policymaking: foreign affairs and the economy. Thus did Abdullah begin to prove himself as a leader. His involvement in regional politics as the representative of the Saudi state in different world conferences and gatherings brought him great success among the Saudi public.
Yet, he also faced growing problems inside the kingdom, including unemployment, poverty, weak public services and growing public criticism and calls for reform. In effect, Abdullah was running only half the system. The other half was run either by those responsible for state security or the retinue of Fahd.
Thus, when Fahd died last August there was no question about succession, but also high expectations of change. Within days of accession, Abdullah's portrait adorned city buildings and rear windows of public owned vehicles. It was now the era of the "Virtuous King", one newspaper headline said. But what brought about such expectations compared to the doubts that shook the nation in the late 1990s?
In the early 1980s, Abdullah was not favored much by Western observers. Since Abdullah enjoyed good relations with Arab leaders in the region, he was thought to be a pro-Arab nationalist and an opponent of the West's regional policy. But this was a false reading of his character.
The aftermath of September 11 provides a good insight into the complications that Abdullah had to contend with prior to his accession. With the US administration pressing for a full makeover of the Saudi state, Abdullah was placed in a difficult situation.
On the one hand, he wanted to show that he could stand up to Washington, and on the other he understood the importance to the kingdom of fighting terrorism and reform. As one taxi driver told me: "he wants to do things his way". To do so, he had to convince not only the Americans to understand him but also his brothers.
On the regional front, Abdullah won approval for his Middle East peace initiative at the Arab Summit 2002 in Beirut, which brought him favorable international attention. Following the tensions in Saudi-American relations, Abdullah implemented a gradual reform in religious schools and as regards to Friday sermons in mosques to allay American concerns of a growing terrorism threat from Saudi Arabia.
And in April 2004, when George W. Bush was preparing his speech on American energy strategy during the peak of the oil prices, Abdullah visited the American president in Crawford, Texas, to assure him of controlled oil prices and with a promise of establishing new refineries. With Saudi Arabia embroiled in a direct fight against terrorism on its own soil, Abdullah became a close ally.
In the last two years Abdullah's fears for the country began to fade on another front, too. Oil prices were steadily increasing after seven years of ups and downs. The increased revenue brought with it the possibility of re-invigorating the welfare state.
A healthy welfare state provides a monarchy with stability. If people are assured more and more secure wealth, calls for greater participation in authority lessen. In 2003, the internal reform movement was at the height of its powers and delivered a call for a constitutional monarchy, but the situation dramatically changed after the stock market boom generated by the high economic performance of state-owned oil companies.
Just lend your ear to Saudi social gathering these days and you will immediately realize the difference: from a deep detestation of government corruption to a deep analysis of the stock market and the best ways to earn a quick and immense profit.
Nevertheless, King Abdullah has remained true to his reform promises. Days after his inauguration, he freed the political prisoners in the "constitutional monarchy" case. Leaks to the press expressed his disappointment with how Saudi security authorities had dealt with that case, yet no rift in the regime was created by an official condemnation of the interior ministry's performance.
In other ways, the new king has already made a significant difference in the lives of Saudis. He authorized a 15 percent pay rise for government employees, established a new human rights committee with wide-ranging powers, and canceled the National Media Council, which was used to channel the domestic media, and signed the WTO entrance agreement.
He also established a "Fighting Poverty" national campaign, donated $543 million to a new housing project for needy families, re-implemented the mass overseas scholarships that had been frozen for 15 years, and last, but not least, made it easier for the average citizen to gain direct access to the king than it has ever been.
The image of Abdullah as the "Virtuous King", however, should not fool anyone into thinking that Saudi Arabia's problems are at an end. Tremendous reforms are still needed in order to transform Saudi Arabia into a democratic state. There is hope, but the struggle for human rights, freedom of speech, religious openness, juridical independence and political participation are still at an early stage.
Adel Al Toraifi is a political affairs commentator on the opinion pages of Al Riyadh newspaper. He is currently a Chevening Fellow at the Center for Studies in Security and Democracy at Birmingham University. Acknowledgement to bitterlemons-international.org