Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Opportunity for a Different Approach to Saudi Arabia

By Ali Alyami

Many Saudis and others, understandably, have greeted King Abdullah’s replacement of some of his government officials on February 14, 2009 with euphoria. Many have thought that removing two of the country’s religious extremists, namely doctor Ibrahim Al-Gaith and Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan, and deputizing a woman to the second post in the ministry of education represent major reform undertakings.

Abdullah’s bold action holds hope for belated and badly needed changes in Saudi Arabia, but it is premature to expect an end to the Saudi royals’ control over every aspect of people’s lives and the decision-making processes. It would also be na├»ve to expect the imminent eradication of religious intolerance and extremism, marginalization of women, discrimination against religious minorities or the legitimization of other religions, specifically Christianity and Judaism. This level of reform will require a transformation of all Saudi institutions and public participation in the decision-making processes. Prudent and knowledgeable students of the Saudi ruling family should not have been surprised by Abdullah’s move as he has been trying to assert himself for many decades, particularly after he took over the country’s day-to-day operation in 1996.
At personal and authority levels, Abdullah has not been accepted by the exclusive club of the Saudi princes, dubbed the Sudairi Seven (seven brothers named after the tribe of their mother’s origin). This group has ruled the country in one capacity or another for the last seventy years. Their monopoly over power has angered many princes and led some of their brothers to condemn them, mostly privately, but not always.1

In an interview in 2007, Prince Talal, a reformer and confidant of King Abdullah, lashed out at his half brothers, the Sudairi Seven, and accused them of “holding executive power for some 70 years." This is a group which is not only blocking reform, but is also "trying to eliminate others and take everything in its hand," he said. "We, in particular the sons of Abdul-Aziz, should take part, both in expressing opinions and in decision-making."2

Even though Prince Talal is outspoken and the most liberal prince in the family, many Saudis felt Talal could not have attacked his powerful Sudairi brothers without King Abdullah’s acquiescence, if not outright encouragement. Talal is not the only royal who resents the Sudairi brothers for their control of the decision-making processes: King Abdullah’s son, Mitab, the commander of the Saudi National Guard, has complained about lack of support for his father’s programs.

The excluded princes’ acrimonious sentiments and frustration were not directed only at their powerful Sudairi brothers, but toward those who supported them, especially the US. After King Abdullah took over the country’s day-to-day operation in 1996, one of his first pronouncements was, "It is time for the US and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests."3

From the outset, Abdullah tried to seek support externally and internally. As an Arab nationalist, he tried to present himself as the new leader of the Arab world. He focused on Syria and Egypt initially, but that did not work. He turned to Muslims and had some success, but not enough to overcome his powerful brothers’ popularity and connections, especially Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Sultan, who is reported to be very ill now. His illness and possible death is said to be a major reason for Abdullah’s action on February 14th. Abdullah also turned to China and India and made headway, especially in trade.

Internally, Abdullah did things that were considered revolutionary by Saudi standards. He encouraged political reformers to petition the government and air their grievances. The reformers did so and met with the King in 2003 and 2004 to demand constitutional monarchy among other things. The meetings with the King and the demands by the reformers infuriated the Sudairi Seven, especially the powerful Minister of Interior Prince Naif. In a direct affront to the King, Naif unleashed his security personnel to round up the reformers and throw them in prison in 2003 and 2004. It is well known that the Sudairis, especially Prince Naif (but also Crown Prince Sultan and Selman, the powerful and ultraconservative governor of the Saudi capital, Riyadh) are opposed to Abdullah’s guarded reform pronouncements and the public support for him. [It is worth noting that Prince Naif is the head of the highly detested and feared religious police who are more loyal to him than to the King. By removing two powerful hardcore religious figures, King Abdullah weakened Prince Naif’s powerbase].4

In addition, Abdullah sought public support for himself personally and for his initiatives, albeit indirectly. During his annual speeches at the Consultative Council (appointed national assembly), Abdullah presented himself as one of the people who is there to save and serve them. Just three days before he decreed the replacement of some officials, he said "I am nothing without my people."5

The recent development in Saudi Arabia is seen by many Saudis as an attempt to consolidate power under Abdullah and to preempt a possible palace revolt over succession to Crown Prince Sultan’s positions. However, King Abdullah understands that in order for him to maintain domestic and global support, some political, religious and educational adjustments have to be explored warily so as not to endanger the continuity of royal family control.

Even though Abdullah, Talal and other princes have an ax to grind against the West, especially the US, because of its support for the Sudairi Seven, these rulers have one overriding item on their agenda – to survive and stay in power. They know that they cannot survive internal and external threats without a superpower’s protection. The Saudi royals may criticize or differ with the US on policies, but when it comes to their protection, they know they can depend on the US.
This is where President Obama and his foreign policy advisers can start a new page with Abdullah, Talal and other princes. The power shift from the Sudairi branch of the royal family to King Abdullah and his royal supporters should not be treated as a strategic setback. On the contrary, this shift could lead to positive political change. The United States can now resume calls for progressive reforms that include public participation in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, only by reforming Saudi institutions can the perils of palace coups and family fratricide be put behind this important country, and all of us affected by its stability, or lack thereof.

2 Gulf States Newsletter, 23 Jan. 2004, page one, issue 726, volume 28
3 WSJ Oct. 29, 2001

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