Four leaders of consequence play an enormous role in today’s international arena. The presidents of the United States, Russia and China wield tremendous military, political and economic power. The fourth leader is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who has the potential to bring peace and prosperity to the Middle East due to Saudi Arabia’s strategic heft as an energy giant, its heavyweight political status in the Arab world and its critical role in shaping the future of the Muslim world. The king, who enters his third year on the throne, embodies a unique mix of reformist instincts, religious credentials, political credibility and vision for change. In the interest of stability, the United States and Europe must strike a grand strategic bargain with King Abdullah to bring lasting peace to this deeply troubled yet energy-rich region.
Although the United States has expressed concerns about Saudi behavior in a number of areas, King Abdullah is perhaps the only leader in the Muslim world with the credibility to offer an enduring pan-Arab peace deal to Israel that simultaneously empowers the Palestinian people and blasts extremist “deviants” as heretical. For example, the recent announcement by Saudi Arabia that it may join the planned Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis was a major boost to President Bush and welcomed by Israel.
The elevation of King Abdullah’s role as a strategic U.S. partner is based on his track record. While some may express frustration with the pace of the king’s reform agenda, there is little doubt that it is anchored in a vision never before seen from the Saudi royal family. Shortly after taking office, King Abdullah delivered a speech in Mecca about his vision for the future of the Muslim world: “Fanaticism and extremism cannot grow on an earth whose soil is embedded in the spirit of tolerance, moderation, and balance. Good governance can eliminate injustice, destitution and poverty.” The speech was vintage King Abdullah: honest, ground-breaking and reform-minded.
In one of his first acts as king, he broke with tradition, pardoning three liberal dissidents jailed for their views. He reportedly met with leading reformers, telling them, “Your project is my project.” The king relies on his personal piety to help him balance the traditionalist impulses of the religious establishment who are adamantly opposed to “Western liberalism” with those changes he sees as necessary for substantive reform. While opponents — religious zealots with little or no education — use Islam as a tool to attack both the kingdom and the West, King Abdullah believes that, “We are progressives by virtue of our Islam.” In short, as the custodian of Islam’s two most holy sites, King Abdullah has the religious authority to challenge the extremists within the Muslim world.
The king has embraced the spirit of infitah, or openness, that is sweeping Saudi society. He has created the Kingdom’s most important forum for dialogue, the King Abdulaziz National Dialogue, and has tolerated — and subtly encouraged — unprecedented levels of freedom of the press in the kingdom. King Abdullah believes that the people of Saudi Arabia know their own problems best and should be encouraged to engage in vigorous dialogue to find solutions.
While not exactly Western-style democracy, there is wisdom in encouraging openness and dialogue through King Abdullah’s economic reforms. They might prove to be as important as his political and social reforms. The king has presided over an impressive list of economic achievements, ranging from Saudi Arabia’s entry into the World Trade Organization to the institution of economic initiatives designed to transform petrodollars into a sustainable economic infrastructure. These initiatives are meant to make Saudi Arabia into an industrial power and a key services center. Equally important, the king has talked openly about fighting corruption and the need for substantive financial-sector reform encouraging transparency.
While taking steps toward securing Saudi Arabia’s economic future and promoting domestic reform, the king takes Saudi Arabia’s role as the world’s largest oil producer very seriously. He is fully aware of the enormous responsibility his country bears in maintaining stability in the global economy.
Accordingly, every time the virulent anti-American rhetoric of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sends oil prices skyrocketing, King Abdullah calms the oil markets by asking his oil minister to tell the world that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ supplies are stable.
King Abdullah has filled a leadership vacuum in the Arab and Muslim world with policies and initiatives aimed at regional stability and prosperity. The Muslim world faces a critical decision affecting its future: will it shift toward greater sectarian conflict, continued underdevelopment and more radical extremism, or will it embrace the principles of moderation, prosperity and peace. In the current combustible dynamic of the Middle East, a grand bargain with King Abdullah will help ensure the latter.
S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting.