- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

The death yesterday of Saudi King Fahd and the removal last week of Prince Bandar bin Sultan as the kingdom’s ambassador to Washington have laid the foundations for a new era in both Saudi-U.S. relations and Saudi domestic politics.

“For the past 10 years, Saudi Arabia has been a monarchy without a monarch, a dysfunctional and problematic arrangement,” said Rachel Bronson, the head of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Now a more normal monarchy will evolve, one which the United States will be able to work with on both reform and the war on terror.”

Fahad Nazer, a former political officer in the Saudi Embassy in Washington and now a fellow at the Institute of Gulf Affairs, predicted little change in the short term under the new king.

“Although the government has taken some modest steps toward political reform in the past few years, is it clear that they do not want to be pressured into anything,” he said.

“The recent sentencing of three prominent reformers to as many as nine years in jail has sent a clear message to reformers inside the kingdom — and critics outside it — that the government will reform at its own pace and on its own terms,” he added.

Both Washington and Riyadh have tried to repair ties badly shaken by the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals.

Economists say King Abdullah may now speed up economic reform in the kingdom, to ease dependence on oil revenues and create jobs for hundreds of thousands of Saudis who enter the job market every year.

But the relationship between the new king and the new ambassador in Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, illustrates how personal relationships will remain crucial to the kingdom’s future.

Arab press reports say Prince Bandar resigned because of friction with the new king, who relied instead on Adel al-Jubeir, his private counselor in Washington, to communicate with the U.S. government.

Some see the Washington shift as an opening shot as the new king tries to wrest control over the extended ruling family by appointing his supporters to key positions.

Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003, said Abdullah has forged close ties with President Bush during two visits to Mr. Bush’s Texas ranch since the 2001 attacks, providing far more help for U.S.-led forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq than has been publicly acknowledged.

He said the new king had pushed for political openness at the local level, but there were limits to his reform program.

“He has the vision to move forward progressively, but at the same time he clearly feels there has to be an educational process before the Saudi electorate can truly exercise the voting franchise,” Mr. Jordan said.

The new king came under immediate pressure for bold moves to tackle the chronic economic and social problems that beset the kingdom, as well as the extremist ideology that fuels terrorism.

“King Fahd’s death is an opportunity to achieve so much in Saudi Arabia in the areas of reform, democracy and women’s rights,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Washington-based Saudi dissident and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

The conservative King Abdullah has been unwilling to challenge the power and influence of the Wahhabi clerics who are the foundation of the Saudi royal family’s rule.

“The war on terrorism should not only target those who are against the royal family, [but also] those within the royal family who supported and gave aid and comfort to terrorists and their supporters,” Mr. Al-Ahmed said.

“There should be zero tolerance of all hatred, bigotry and terrorism — especially that coming from the Saudi royals themselves. They cannot lead the way to a better kingdom until they reform themselves.”

John R. Bradley’s book, “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis,” has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan. Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this article.

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