- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

Saudi King Abdullah has apparently signaled his willingness to step down from his gilded throne in just 10 to 15 short years. If Abdullah means it, he could alter the political balance of the Middle East, and in unpredictable ways. But as exciting as the king’s proposition appears, Washington and the opinion-makers should be careful to laud and reward measures, not rhetoric.

Our Nicholas Kralev quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official on Friday as saying that King Abdullah told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he would institute a series of reforms that could bring the kingdom an elected government in a decade, or decade and a half. The king made the pledge to Miss Rice during her July 20 visit to Riyadh, when King Abdullah was still crown prince, having been defacto ruler of the country for almost a decade due to the incapacitating illness of King Fahd. This is the first time a Saudi king has drawn a timeline for reform.

The Saudis have taken one small but noteworthy step toward democracy, holding elections for municipal advisory councils, and Saudi Arabia said early this month that it would free five imprisoned reform advocates. That earned the praise of State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

Abdullah may have the best reform intentions, but there are considerable obstacles between here and a Saudi democracy. Given the rising Islamic extremism in the kingdom, democratic elections could become a platform for imposing a Sunni theocracy on Saudi Arabia. Elections would likely bring Sunni-Shi’ite rivalries to the fore.

King Abdullah’s health is important, too, since both the king and his designated successor — Prince Sultan, the defense minister — are in their 80s. Their reigns would surely be short — shorter even than the 10-to-15-year timeline the king foresees for himself. The king and the prince would likely be succeeded by their aging brothers, creating a series of short successions, which in turn could create significant instability for Saudi Arabia and stunt democratic reform. Next in line are the hundreds of nephews, the result of the abundance and fecundity of royal wives, and many will compete for the throne — another source of speculation and instability.

Over the long term, democracy is the best vehicle for countering extremism by giving a voice and political stake to a long-disenfranchised people. But it’s the short term we live in, and it’s not at all clear what reform will do for Saudi Arabia. Nobody is more aware of this than the king.

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