Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Saudi King Attempting Difficult Synthesis

I was the Assistant Producer for a PBS TV program on Saudi Arabia back in 1980 when Karen Elliott House and I had lunch to discuss the latest goings-on in The Magic Kingdom, as it was known back then because no bad news ever percolated out of a land where all was well and all would be well, at least as far as the Western media was aware.

Now the Western press is allowed to be stationed in Saudi and Warren Hoge of the NYT and Karen House of WSJ have been writing some interesting pieces illuminating the dark recesses of the House of Saud. Karen's latest piece illustrates some of the problems:
Sectarian chaos in Iraq, messianic militancy in Iran and the diminishing clout in the Middle East of its longtime U.S. ally all pose threats from without. Religious extremism, youth unemployment and princely corruption threaten from within.

It is a sign of how intense--and potentially fatal to the ruling regime--those pressures are that King Abdullah opened the Arab Summit meeting here last Friday by lashing out at U.S. troops in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation." But the pressure also explains why Saudi Arabia has a ruler who actually is trying to grapple with challenges to the kingdom his father founded 75 years ago. On the one hand, the elderly king is opening up an unprecedented internal public dialogue on sensitive issues ranging from religious extremism to the role of women to ease pressure from middle-class Saudis. On the other hand, in a kingdom that historically limited its international role to pulling strings in the shadows, he has engaged in active and open regional and international diplomacy.

Some of his greatest opposition is from internal reactionary forces, like Prince Na'if, Minister of the Interior and arch-foe of any liberalization of the sharia law.
The fact that his initiatives have led to very little substantive change so far is widely blamed on what are seen as reactionary relations, especially his brother, Prince Naif, who heads the Ministry of Interior, and on the religious establishment. "I am hopeful with King Abdullah more change is on the way," says Tawfiq al-Saif, a member of the minority Shia sect and one of several Shia leaders with whom King Abdullah has opened a dialogue. "The people around him are more open. But we need to institutionalize change, not have it be a personal thing that comes and goes."

I accompanied Ambassador John West years ago on his official visit to Prince Na'if's palatial offices in Riyadh and can assure you that Na'if practically smoldered in his disdain for the USA and all that America represents. His hostility was blatant to the point of almost being impolite. If Abdullah dies tomorrow, Prince Sultan becomes king and his full brother Na'if may become de-facto Crown Prince, despite a new succession process put in place by Abdullah. And the Saudis' view of the US is changed:
Most Saudis one encounters here seem to see the U.S. as a fading presence in the region--worn down by its painful experience in Iraq, divided at home, and lacking the national unity necessary to sustain its historic great power role. The ruling regime is historically and inextricably linked to its U.S. ally but is beginning to hedge its bets by improving ties with Russia, China, India and other powers.

The Saudis will not turn on the Americans, but seek a middle way among the many geo-political vectors pushing and tugging on its borders. The Ta'if Arrangement a few years ago offered Israel full recognition among its neighbors in return for a Palestinian mini-state. Israel should consider this offer carefully, as it might be the step needed to normalize Israel's status in the region. House ends ominously:
Still, whether one views Saudi Arabia as a largely loyal U.S. ally, as an increasingly reluctant dependent or as a country haltingly seeking an independent position in this dangerous region, the U.S. continues to have a profound interest in Saudi stability. In a part of the world where America has few friends and many enemies, King Abdullah is a last best hope for the U.S. as well as the Saudis. What will follow him, regardless of whether there is an orderly succession, almost certainly will be less to America's liking.

We used to say in the Embassy at Jidda that the Second Law of Thermodynamics works overtime in the Middle East and that entropy is the motto of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Let's hope that might end someday.

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