Abdullah’s No Reformer

Those who predicted the Saudi monarch would bring real change to the kingdom had it wrong. His real goal has been to tighten his family's grip on power.


Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the energetic octogenarian who is in his fifth year as head of the oil-rich kingdom, will visit Washington on June 29. Abdullah has overcome divisions within the royal family and proceeded to restore stability to the kingdom, which just a few years ago was under siege by local radicals and wracked with fears about the possible regionalization of the Iraq war. For all his considerable political acumen, however, Abdullah has turned to an old playbook to consolidate the House of Saud’s authority — leaving important questions about what comes next for the kingdom unanswered.

Amid political uncertainty, Abdullah has taken measured steps to transform his country. Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia is a remarkably different place than that of his immediate predecessor. With his blessing, the Saudi press, while hardly free, is occasionally vibrant and sometimes even critically introspective. Some of the kingdom’s most sacred institutions and practices, including the reactionary religious establishment and the draconian restrictions imposed on women, have come under fire in the media by a growing number of Saudi journalists, intellectuals, and activists. Saudi citizens have been taking their cues directly from the king, who has worked to rein in the clergy, which has enjoyed tremendous power since the kingdom took a conservative turn in the late 1970s.

Perhaps most importantly, Abdullah has led the charge in an effort to develop and promote a sense of Saudi identity. For decades, the kingdom’s leaders neglected to foster anything resembling Saudi nationalism. Since 2003, Abdullah and his supporters have attempted to promote national unity through the institution of the National Dialogue, a conference that gives Saudi citizens an opportunity to raise issues affecting the kingdom.

Yet, despite the new levels of openness enjoyed by Saudi citizens, Abdullah is not leading the kingdom on the path to political liberalism. Just the opposite: While making small social and economic concessions, the king is in fact turning the clock back in Arabia, using his popularity to confront clergy and restore the kind of unchecked authority his family enjoyed in the 1970s. Although the royal family has been the preeminent political force in the Arabian Peninsula since the early 20th century, its supremacy was challenged in 1979 by the spectacular siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which marked the rise of a generation of Islamist rebels. The kingdom’s leaders responded by co-opting its radical critics. In doing so, they greatly expanded the power of the religious establishment.

Thirty years on, it is this bargain that Abdullah has begun to dismantle. And he is succeeding. Indeed, Abdullah’s most important domestic accomplishment so far has been the strengthening of his and his family’s grip on power.

Abdullah’s consolidation of authority has clear global implications, even affecting Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States. Although the longtime allies agree in principle on the importance of security in the Persian Gulf, it is not clear that they share a common vision for how best to achieve it. The Saudis continue to look to the U.S. military for protection from regional threats — even though, arguably, the American war machine has done much to destabilize the region in recent decades. In spite of security expectations and assurances, there is considerable uncertainty as to whether the two allies will continue to find common ground.

Ties between the two countries continue to be based primarily on the stable flow of Saudi oil to global markets and the flow of Saudi petrodollars into the pockets of U.S. weapons manufacturers. But while Saudi Arabia was once willing to do the United States’ bidding, the kingdom under Abdullah has been a complicated ally, willing to use its oil power to push back gently against unpopular U.S. policies.

For instance, the Saudis opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, though they eventually provided some logistical support. More importantly, Abdullah has refused to become actively involved in settling nerves in Iraq, forgiving debt accumulated under Saddam Hussein’s regime, or helping restore political order. The usually reserved king even preferred to isolate the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and stoke sectarian anxieties, rather than assisting U.S. efforts to stabilize the Iraqi political system.

The Saudis’ frustration stemmed from their early realization that the war opened the door for Tehran’s resurgence in Iraq and the renewal of the bitter Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The war also distracted from what many Saudis, including the king, consider the single most important political challenge facing the region: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Abdullah and other prominent Saudi leaders have insisted, rightly, that regional stability will remain elusive until progress is made on a political settlement between Palestinians and Israelis. And they will almost certainly continue to use whatever leverage they have — including their support, or lack thereof, of U.S. efforts in Iraq — to continue to push for movement on the Palestinian-Israeli front.

Future U.S. efforts to restrain Iran’s purported development of nuclear weapons might meet with similar Saudi obstructionism. Mutual U.S.-Saudi concerns over Iran’s growing influence, from Iraq to Lebanon and throughout the Persian Gulf, are no guarantee that Abdullah would support military action against the Islamic Republic. The Saudis have much to lose, particularly from any disruption of oil shipments in the gulf, or Iran’s potential retaliation against their oil facilities in the region, a move that could accompany another conflict.

It is more likely that the Saudis want to see the Americans maintain a military presence in the region — though not on Saudi soil — preferring the demonstration of military force to its actual use. This would also represent a turning back of the clock to a time when the United States maintained a more robust presence on the Arabian Peninsula.

Abdullah’s vision for Saudi Arabia is reminiscent of that of his half-brother Faisal, who ruled the kingdom from 1964 until his assassination in 1975. Respected at home as a reformer, confident in regional affairs, and willing to take on the United States, Faisal’s era as monarch is viewed by many as the kingdom’s golden age: a period of material prosperity and political strength. Abdullah may not welcome the comparison, however, as Faisal’s reign helped galvanize a generation of Saudi radicalism, creating the political order that he is trying to take apart.

There are no indications that a new wave of dissent is on the way, but by looking to re-create the past, rather than finding a way forward, the question of what will follow Abdullah should concern the kingdom — and its most important patron.

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