- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The first 100 days of King Abdullah’s rule has been remarkable because of the alacrity with which he has instituted reform measures. This popular and pious monarch is turning out to be the first genuine reformer in Saudi Arabia’s history. Since taking over officially from his brother, the late King Fahd, King Abdullah has embarked on a mission of statecraft designed to transform the institutions and partnerships of Saudi Arabia.

Unlike some within the House of Saud, King Abdullah has demonstrated a willingness to address the challenges facing Saudi Arabia and the broader Middle East, including: the poison of Islamist extremism; winning back the trust of the faithful; fighting corruption so as to create employment opportunities for the young population; Islamist Iran’s influence in Shi’a-dominated Iraq; integration of Saudi Arabia into the world economy; protection of the world’s largest oil reserves from the threat of terrorism; and promoting a new generation of leaders for the 21st century.

The United States has an enormous stake in the success of King Abdullah’s new statecraft, and it must support this popular leader through quiet diplomacy. Unfortunately, there are those in Washington who believe that Saudi Arabia is doing too little too late. The propagation of this perception is extremely dangerous because, to the extent that Washington distances itself from the king and his nascent efforts to reform the institutions and foreign affairs of Saudi Arabia, it plays into the hands of both Riyadh’s and Washington’s enemy terrorists, like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Although the new king remains cautious, wanting to avoid an open confrontation with the religious establishment, by his actions these first 100 days King Abdullah has breathed new life into the body politic of the world’s largest oil producer and most important anchor of global energy security.

For example, consideration of Saudi Arabia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) was frozen until King Abdullah took power. Riyadh has now agreed to end all economic boycotts and pledged to refrain from implementing discriminatory trade sanctions, thus allowing the WTO to admit Saudi Arabia as its 149th member. King Abdullah understands that entry into the WTO and economic reform go hand in hand. Therefore, most restrictions on foreign investment in banking, insurance, telecommunications and other service industries have been removed, thus opening the door to one of the largest free-market economies in the world. The WTO entry signifies a major political victory for King Abdullah.

Saudi Arabia’s stock market is the 10th-largest in the world, with $517.6 billion in market capitalization. Furthermore, the king recently allocated $21.3 billion of government funds for the construction of new roads, water-desalination plants and schools through 2006. The king has also decreed that all financial transactions by the government meet generally accepted international standards of transparency. This combination of transparency, substantial funding for improved infrastructure and a vibrant capital market will allow for sustainable economic reform and growth.

It also appears that King Abdullah has ended his country’s 8-year-old truce with neighboring Iran. Recently, Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, brought attention to the dangers of Shi’a Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of Iraq. The king’s geopolitical rationale is correct: The emergence of a pro-Iranian government in Iraq, which lies next to the Shi’a-populated Saudi oil-producing Eastern Province, would threaten the world’s largest oil reserves.

King Abdullah recently declared an annual independence day, a strange innovation for a kingdom founded with the support of the puritanical Wahhabi branch of Islam. The first royal decree celebrating a national holiday without any religious connotation is a hopeful sign that the tone and tenor of life in Saudi Arabia will be set by the monarch and not the ulema.

Political and social reform has also been on the king’s agenda. This year, Saudi Arabia had its first local council elections and, while woman did not yet have the right to the vote, it was an auspicious start. Furthermore, the king pushed for the adoption of a new labor law to replace the old 1968 statute that had been thoroughly censored by the clerics for any deviation from Islamic law. The new law addresses working women’s rights, the obligation to employ Saudi citizens and compulsory retirement to free up jobs for the unemployed.

The doctrine of democratic reform is not an absolute. Saudi Arabia’s complex geopolitical, economic, social and military challenges have to be taken into account when considering whether King Abdullah has passed or failed in his first 100 days in office. The good news is that for the first time, a benevolent reformer is ruling the world’s largest oil producer.

S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D., is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.

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