- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

LONDON - The office of the Saudi crown prince reflects his prior-ities in running the kingdom that he officially inherits today.

Atop a brown circular patterned carpet is a large brown bookcase, containing 32 small TV sets and one recessed giant flat-screen television. Crown Prince Abdullah insists on being able to monitor all satellite television channels at once, rather than rely on aides for information.

Conservative religious leaders once considered television an agent of the devil. A killing related to state-run television led to the assassination of King Faisal in 1975. Even radios were condemned by the ulema, or Muslim scholars, and telephones were once denounced as “Satans hiding in boxes.”

The new king’s embrace of technology represents his many ambiguities.

Abdullah, who is to be formally enthroned today, replaces his half brother King Faud, who died after a long illness on Monday.

The new monarch has had day-to-day authority in Saudi Arabia since King Faud suffered a stroke in 1995. During that period, he has sustained an image as a straightforward, down-to-earth and pious man, even as he traveled in a Rolls Royce, plate No. 001, that is equipped with a television and multiple cell phones.

His half brother Sultan bin Abdulaziz, named Monday as the new crown prince, has an image of greediness that might be equally inaccurate.

Prince Sultan, 77, and a full brother of the late King Fahd, had been defense minister and a deputy prime minister. His power base is the army, and he has been a strong supporter of the U.S. alliance. His son Prince Bandar was the influential Saudi ambassador in Washington for two decades until he resigned last month.

King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan both are at an advanced age, 81 and 77 respectively, leaving many of the most serious questions about the kingdom’s future leadership still to be resolved.

Behind the family unity demonstrated in a dignified and austere funeral for King Faud yesterday, questions of power and influence are swirling.

Chief among the hard-line conservatives is said to be Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the interior minister.

“Crown Prince Abdullah was described as de facto ruler but really he was something of a figurehead,” says Mai Yamani, the main Saudi specialist for the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

“The fact that they battled so hard to keep King Fahd technically alive in intensive care over the last few months — even claiming his health was improving, he was appointing a new ambassador et cetera — was to cover up the divisions, the two camps that are struggling for power,” she said.

Ms. Yamani, the daughter of former Saudi Oil Minister Zaki Yamani, says King Abdullah had far more influence outside the country than he did at home. Every time King Abdullah said reforms were forthcoming, Prince Nayef said no, she said in a telephone interview yesterday.

” ‘Women can drive cars,’ said Abdullah. Nayef said no, never. Abdullah said women in 2009 can perhaps vote. Nayef said no. He would contradict Abdullah publicly by issuing a statement,” she said. “I think the schism will continue now and come to a head.”

Some of the conflict revolves around moves toward reform — a word that reformers are told not to use anymore, although they can talk of “development.” Some differences are connected with the battle to contain and reduce the threat of internal terrorism by al Qaeda and its large base of ground-level and religious support within the kingdom.

In this complex mixture, Ms. Yamani foresees Prince Nayef increasing his influence in alliance with hard-line clergy, the conservative judiciary and their stick-wielding, street-side enforcers in the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice.

One worrying sign for the more liberal elements of Saudi society was the kingdom’s lack of reaction to a fatwa, or ruling, issued in April by 26 prominent clerics giving religious sanction to a jihad in Iraq.

Despite the ruling, the clerics continue to collect salaries from the government and their Web site continues to operate, Ms. Yamani said.

“The conservatives have turned a blind eye to all the factors feeding the militants,” Ms. Yamani said, even as the government has employed all of its security muscle to battle al Qaeda terrorist cells since a wave of attacks on foreign compounds in May 2003.

Despite the continuing power of religious conservatives, most analysts say the Saudi rulers oversaw a remarkable transformation in the desert kingdom under the al-Saud dynasty.

When the desert tribe swept into power, overthrowing a more urbanized elite known as the Hijazis, its leaders were wise enough to incorporate some of the better-educated Hijazis into the ruling classes.

Leaning on the expertise of these people, the al-Sauds were able to remain in power and amass great wealth while moving the country from its nomadic roots to an era of free schools and health services and 21st-century skyscrapers.

Even so, the distribution of the country’s vast oil wealth has been top-heavy, with control of the revenues restricted to the direct descendants of founding monarch King Abdulaziz and his wives.

Today, those descendents number more than 30,000 princes and their families in a country of 25 million people. One survey shows that they control more than half of the money earned annually from Saudi oil sales and concessions. Additional profits are available for smoothing the way to construction, services and arms contracts.

Meanwhile, serious poverty persists alongside the glittering exteriors of Riyadh and Jiddah, where the royal family’s private air terminal is covered in masses of pure gold. Outside Riyadh, shantytowns formed by work-seeking rural migrants have been bulldozed unceremoniously.

A once-taboo word, unemployment, is being whispered. Members of the royal family have held weeks-long summer gatherings in air-conditioned tents in the oasis of Taif to debate and map out new employment strategies.

Another challenge to the royal family is the introduction of democratic structures. A halting first step was taken this year when only men were permitted to vote for municipal authorities, but the turnout was low.

A National Dialogue started by King Abdullah in 2004 brought together different religious sects — Salafis (Wahhabis), Sufis and Shi’ites.

“But the religious authorities have not legitimized its discussions, so nothing has changed,” said Ms. Yamani. “The Shia, for example, still cannot practice their religious rituals, be witnesses in court or even work as butchers.

“Such gatherings are unprecedented to the extent that they bring together groups that never talked before,” but “political expression remains constrained. Demonstrations are illegal, and there are no venues for political expression outside the Internet, which has created a community of alienated and embittered Saudis.”

Hundreds of angry Web sites have cropped up, the most extreme preaching the ideology of al Qaeda, she said. Spurred by unemployment, political uncertainty and falling living standards, young Saudi men are easily recruited by extremist groups.

“If Saudi Arabia’s rulers were serious about ‘participatory government,’ they would encourage liberals, moderates and pragmatists,” she wrote in a research paper.

“Instead, they repress, censor, silence and even imprison the moderates and appease the religious radicals. The authorities have killed some of the more violent jihadis in their ‘war against terrorism,’ but they fear that a wider crackdown, however necessary, would alienate important tribes and clans.”

Her conclusions are stark and fail to acknowledge the terribly difficult path that the rulers have trodden, generally with great success, over decades. Nevertheless, Dr Yamani, herself from the deposed Hijazis who once ruled the cities, reflects a view widely held by intellectuals.

“Despite cynicism, apathy, frustration, despair, and violence, some Saudis still hope for the emergence of a prince on a white horse who will place the kingdom onto the path of reform,” she writes.

“But there is no such prince; there are only the old ones, clinging to power without legitimacy and toying grotesquely with their people’s aspirations.”

The new post-Fahd era will soon determine in what direction the House of Saud is able to ride its Arabian horse - and if it stays firmly in the saddle.

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