Thursday, August 04, 2005

After King Fahd

The king for a clean-up

The new Saudi monarch is ready to take on his country's corruption and dangerous subordination to US interests

Mark Hollingsworth

Guardian August 2, 2005

The death of King Fahd will be greeted with anxiety and unease by the west and the Saudi royal family now that Crown Prince Abdullah has succeeded the corrupt, complacent 84-year-old despot.
The House of Saud will be fearful because Abdullah has made little secret of the fact that he plans to cut back on royal corruption and the extravagant royal lifestyle. The White House and No 10 will be nervous because the new king believes his country should be less subservient to western military and strategic interests in the Gulf.
During his 23-year reign, King Fahd acquired a personal fortune of $20bn. He encouraged what the CIA called "a culture of royal excess" and Saudi princes brazenly cashed in on UK and US defence contracts.
But, unlike most senior princes, Abdullah is not corrupt. He has turned his back on the palatial luxuries of Riyadh and Jeddah. He has always been an aberration in the House of Saud. He represents the Bedouin, conservative, tribal interests in the kingdom. His rare concession to modernity is the bank of 33 television sets in his office, which allow him to monitor all available satellite channels at once.
Abdullah is determined to curb royal corruption, which escalated in the mid-90s despite the kingdom running up multibillion-dollar deficits. He is also likely to be more non-aligned, reducing Saudi dependency on America in order to increase the prospects of peace in the Middle East. For decades Saudi Arabia has been acquiescent in supporting US strategic interests. The wars against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were launched from bases in the kingdom and the Gulf states, and were dependent on unencumbered use of Saudi airspace.
Access to Saudi bases was helpful but not essential. What was crucial was Saudi support for US access to other Gulf bases. "After the 1991 Iraq war, none of the Gulf states were likely to do anything much with us militarily unless the Saudis wanted it to be done," said Walter Slocombe, former US undersecretary of defence. "So we needed Saudi political support."
The House of Saud has also not been shy at bankrolling US foreign policy, notably $32m to the Contra rebels against the Nicaraguan government, $4bn for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and $17bn for the 1991 Gulf war.
And the biggest favour of all: supplying cheap, plentiful oil and manipulating the price to benefit the American economy. Less than 24 hours after 9/11, the Saudis authorised a sharp increase in daily oil production. This kept the price low and helped to ensure that the US experienced only a slight inflation increase.
Wielding its surplus oil capacity as a political weapon has given the Saudi royal family real power and influence over the west. In return, the US and Britain protect the kingdom from Islamist insurgents and neighbouring states, sell it weapons at inflated prices purely to produce kickbacks for its senior princes, support its negotiations with the IMF and World Bank, overlook its complicity in support for terrorism and turn a blind eye when British citizens are tortured in Saudi jails.
While it needs the oil revenues to fund the profligate lifestyles of its 6,000 princes, the House of Saud has been prepared to forgo much-needed profits in tight oil markets, coming close to bankrupting the country. And its subjugation to US strategic interests has increased support for al-Qaida and Islamist militancy, which has produced instability in the Middle East and terrorism in western Europe.
Crown Prince Abdullah shows all the signs of being more independent, tougher and pragmatic. Politically, he is a traditional Islamic Arab nationalist. Among the Saudi public, he is popular and viewed as straight-talking and honest. He does not speak any foreign languages, preferring the traditional Bedouin style of Arabic, much to the annoyance of Prince Sultan, the defence minister, who craves the patronage of western governments.
While King Fahd remained alive, Abdullah was restricted in implementing reforms - reducing dependency on the US for its security, stamping out royal greed, implementing the rule of law and curtailing the power of the militant Islamic clerics. He was often blocked by his reactionary half-brothers, Prince Sultan, Prince Naif (the interior minister) and Prince Salman (governor of Riyadh).
Now Abdullah should be unshackled and able to modernise a repressive and corrupt regime that has been propped up by the west. Some British and American diplomats claim that democracy is the solution to Saudi Arabia's problems. But the inconvenient consequence of an election might well be that Osama bin Laden would win. In 2001 a Saudi intelligence survey of educated, professional Saudis concluded that 95% supported al-Qaida's cause.
"If you go around the Muslim world, you will find the vast majority of people support Bin Laden and this is more tragic than 9/11 itself," said Dr Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a former Saudi ambassador in London. "It comes down to the question of why people hate America."
Concessions, such as more consultative councils, may placate the kingdom's merchants. But the problem of Islamist terrorism and royal corruption can be rectified only by an independent judiciary and a return to the rule of law. That will involve tough and decisive leadership by Prince Abdullah rather than a tortuously slow road to political accountability.
The death of King Fahd is a rare opportunity to clean up a medieval monarchy that virtually runs the international oil economy, tortures western and its own citizens at will, allows its religious elite to promote terrorism and enables the US to dominate the Middle East.

· Mark Hollingsworth is the author of Saudi Babylon: Torture, Corruption and Cover-Up Inside the House of Saud


Mai Yamani: One more step on the road to collapse

Don't look for hope in the new generation, which is neither young nor progressive

Independent 02 August 2005

Saudi Arabia's royal death-watch is finally over. King Fahd, the country's longest-serving ruler, died yesterday after 24 years in power. For years, American medical advances kept the king breathing - indeed, one US congressman called this international act of royal preservation an "oil for medicine" programme.
This allowed Saudi Arabia to remain in denial both about the health of the king and the wider political health of the nation. But even American medical technology has its limits. And now, with Fahd's death, Saudis could soon find the health of the nation also in sharp decline.
A succession - and a succession crisis - is at hand. Indeed, the very fact that they kept the king alive for so long shows the Al Saud family's fear of future divisions in its own ranks.
The king's death comes at a time when the wider Middle East is abuzz with talk of democratic change. From Egypt to Lebanon to Iran, political passions are mounting. Political debate is flowering as never before. Even the conservative states of the Arabian Peninsula are embroiled in lively disputes about women ministers, Shia representation, Islamist participation in the political process, and even the future of their ruling monarchies.
But like its moribund king, Saudi Arabia has remained trapped in a state of suspended animation, its body politic sick and infirm. Now it is caught between two choices: progressive reform or continuing paralysis and decay.
But the divisions in the kingdom are sharper than ever, and the king's death may well bring the schism to a head. Two rival camps, the so-called reformers and the hard liners, are forming between the 22,000 princes and princesses in the Al Saud, the world's largest ruling family.
The reformers, which include Abdullah, the new king, are the acceptable face of the Saudi dictatorship internationally, but they have less authority. They talk about municipal elections, national dialogue, and the rights of women, who they suggest very quietly may one day even be allowed to drive cars. But even these limited efforts are obstructed by the hardline Wahhabi camp, which controls the security forces, the judiciary, and the real levers of domestic power. Indeed, Prince Naif, the Minister of the Interior and leader of the hardliners, has either silenced or imprisoned hundreds of the key Saudi reformers.
One reason for the weakness of Abdullah's faction is that he has scant support within the family, because the Al Saud centre of power lies with the al Fahds - the late king and his six full brothers, most importantly Prince Sultan, the Minister of Defence, and Prince Naif.
On the surface, the succession seems settled. But Abdullah will not be able to shape the future, because he seems doomed to lose any showdown with Naif's forces. Abdullah's power base is in the National Guard, and his claim on the support of Saudi Arabia's modernising forces. Both are insufficient to check Naif. A key early test of Abdullah's kingship will be if he can succeed in freeing the hundreds of political reformers in prison, especially three respected academics who he encouraged to make reform proposals, only to be incarcerated by Naif.
Old scores among King Fahd's numerous brothers and half-brothers, not to mention the thousands of princes in the next generation, will also need to be settled. But don't look for hope in the new generation, which is neither necessarily young nor progressive. Indeed, the Al Saud clan's third and fourth generations are divided not only in political and religious affiliation, but also range in age from 20 to 90. All await a chance to rule.
So Saudi Arabia's people confront a pivotal question; can an authoritative ruler reunite the country in the progressive tradition of the late King Faisal? The sad likelihood is that given the power of the obstructionists under Naif, a decisive king is unlikely to emerge. The direction the country will take in the longer term can best be assessed by whom Abdullah chooses to name as the successor to Prince Sultan, Naif's chief ally who has already been named Abdullah's heir.
Perhaps if Abdullah can skip a generation there may be hope. But Naif, his full brothers - including Sultan - and their supporters in the Wahhabi establishment appear too entrenched to allow that. Like the geriatric successions that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union, the accession of Abdullah seems to be only another step in Saudi Arabia's inexorable march toward political decay. Russia found a reformer in Mikhail Gorbachev too late. It may also be too late for Saudi Arabia.

The writer is a research fellow at Chatham House, and the author of Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity



Riddles in the sand kingdom

Michael Binyon

The House of Saud will need all its guile and toughness to see off challenges from home and abroad

The Times 2 August 2005

THE FALL of the House of Saud has been predicted so often that the death of a king now barely causes a ripple in the world oil price. Like any long-forecast event, the passing of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud after 22 years on the throne has already been discounted: for the past ten years effective authority has been in the hands of his 81-year-old half-brother, a man who is unlikely to alter course now that he has the title as well as the powers of king. But unless King Abdullah can control the breakneck changes engulfing Saudi Arabia, that fall may eventually no longer seem so fanciful.
Secretive, conservative and cautious, the House of Saud is one of the most resilient dynasties in the world. It has suffered numerous shocks that would have toppled less agile monarchies: the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by extremists in 1979, pitched battles with Iranian pilgrims, war with Iraq and a terrorist campaign by al-Qaeda that has brought the country to the brink of civil war. Yet its rulers have used appeasement, guile and brute force to thwart all enemies and remain, precariously, in power.
The House of Saud has succeeded by sticking together. And that unity was on striking display yesterday. Whatever the family, political or religious tensions between the many sons and descendants of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the warrior founder of the kingdom, the royal princes who hold all the main offices of state have let nothing divide them or dilute their authority. One of the first acts of the new king was to confirm Prince Sultan, Defence Minister for the past 40 years, as his heir. This not only underlines the primacy of the so-called Sudairi Seven — the sons of ibn Saud’s favourite wife — and confirms the political status quo; it also avoids a damaging wrangle about the succession, legitimised not by primogeniture but by tribal agreement.
With the succession settled — or at least postponed until time takes its toll of the gerontocracy — King Abdullah can devote himself to the real challenges, external and internal. These are formidable. Abroad, Saudi Arabia has still a long way to go to repair relations with America, its defender and main trading partner.
After the 9/11 atrocities, America cast a withering look at the country that gave birth to 15 of the 19 terrorist attackers. Washington has exposed the Saudi contradiction of embracing the West materially but shunning its values, culture and democracy. America has put huge pressure on Saudi Arabia to curb religious extremism, grant greater rights to women and introduce democracy. At the same time it is actively reducing dependence on Saudi oil.
As regent, Crown Prince Abdullah was seen for a while to distance himself from America, to slow the pace of westernisation and to confront Washington over its support for Israel. The relationship cooled. Since 9/11, however, he has had urgently to rebuild the relationship that for the past 60 years underpinned his dynasty. And two weeks ago he appointed one of the country’s most accomplished statesmen, Prince Turki al-Saud, the former head of intelligence and current Ambassador in London, as the new envoy to Washington to win back US trust.
Another more existential challenge faces the kingdom: the leadership of Islam. As Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines, the title that the King regards as his most significant, the Saudi ruler plays host to the world’s largest voluntary migration: the annual haj to Mecca. The crisis that political extremism has caused in the Islamic world is one that vitally affects Saudi interests. Not only is it a challenge to the country’s own puritanical brand of Wahhabi Islam, but it calls into question the authority of Saudi religious scholars and the prestige of a country for whom religion is part of its DNA. Maintaining Islamic unity while fighting against extremism and curbing its own indiscriminate funding of often dubious Muslim causes around the world will demand all the circumspection for which the popular new king has long been noted.
This foreign challenge is umbilically linked to the main domestic concern: the place of religion in Saudi life. Reconciling traditional teachings with modernism and globalisation is becoming ever more vexed. Cautiously, Saudi Arabia has begun to admit elements of secular, especially commercial, jurisprudence into Islamic law. But any move to dilute the absolute authority of the religious establishment runs straight into the easily inflamed prejudices of tribal elders and scholars.
And a conservative backlash has quickly been exploited by al-Qaeda and others who denounce the House of Saud as corrupt, Western stooges. King Abdullah must now decide how far he will go in appeasing the religious conservatives, and how tough he must be in crushing the spiritual mentors of al-Qaeda sympathisers.
This, in turn, is linked to another central issue: democracy. “Hasten slowly” has been the motto for a decade, and is likely to continue. The new king knows that swift concessions to Western pressure or to the few Saudi liberals returning from colleges in America could be disastrous: either he will be seen as acting under duress and going against Islam (still ambiguous in its attitude to democratic authority), or he may hasten his throne’s collapse by conceding power through the ballot box to Islamists and conservatives appalled by westward leanings.
Finally, there is the question of money. Saudi Arabia is rich, but relatively poorer than it was. The population is soaring, oil income is spread ever thinner and a restless middle class has neither the jobs nor the prospects of its parents. Economic reform and privatisation are becoming pressing. The welfare state needs trimming, as do the princely incomes. The new king may wish to make a symbolic change, enforcing on all his own modesty. But change, at his age and for his generation, is difficult to negotiate. And unless he adjusts his pace, the new king may find that caution is not enough to see him through.

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