- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

As the rest of the Muslim world was engulfed in violence over the publication of sacrilegious cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, one country at the heart and soul of the Muslim world remained surprisingly silent. Yet that country, Saudi Arabia, is where one would have expected the most virulent and violent demonstrations, since it is the birthplace of Islam. But extremists failed to capitalize on the European press’ lack of respect for the prophet of Islam.

The extremists’ failure to widely incite the population of Saudi Arabia is largely due to the nature of its new leader, King Abdullah. The new king is a pious and popular leader of the most significant Muslim country in the world, and he has reset the tone and tenure of political life in Saudi Arabia by emphasizing restraint and tolerance.

At his home in the outskirts of the capital, Riyadh, King Abdullah’s gracious and reform-minded son, Prince Miteb, explained his father’s vision as one of “constructive engagement.” As custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines, King Abdullah understands the enormous responsibility he carries as the flag-bearer of Islam. Therefore, one of the most important themes that King Abdullah has been stressing is unity both within Islam and among the various faiths of the world. For example, at a recent gathering in Riyadh, he emphasized that the “clash of civilizations” is only likely to occur if instigators of discord are allowed to spread hatred without any intervening authority.

Unlike irresponsible Muslim clerics and “leaders” who encouraged violence in response to the cartoons, this reformist leader called on Muslim intellectuals to project the true picture of Islam as a moderate and tolerant religion: “We should tell the world that the mistakes committed by a small minority of extremists and fanatics do not represent the spirit of Islam and its heritage.” The king led the way by expressing his satisfaction with the apologies issued by Danish authorities expressing their deep sorrow and thereby showed statesmanship on a grand scale.

Prince Miteb, who represents a new, more progressive generation of Saudi leaders, highlighted the National Dialogue Forum as an example of the king’s commitment to democratization of the kingdom, individualized to adapt to the country’s culture and norms. The forum was founded in 2003 on the instructions of then-Crown Prince Abdullah as a channel for “responsible expression.” These Saudi-style town hall meetings have become an effective means of fighting fanaticism and extremism by enabling Saudi men and women from all walks of life to publicly discuss previously taboo subjects.

For the first time in the kingdom’s history, Saudis are enjoying a culture of public dialogue that is bringing about societal change. The first two forums covered issues of religious tolerance and women’s rights. As a result of these dialogues, King Abdullah was able to peacefully return the formerly shunned minority Shi’ite Muslims into the mainstream of Saudi society.

The third forum focused on education reform, whereupon most Saudis opined that the present education system produces students who are experts at memorization but who cannot think logically and rationally. Another forum was called “Us and the Other” and dealt with how Saudis relate to the rest of the world. A majority of participants were fiercely critical of the Saudi curriculum, which blames “the other” for most international problems.

As the United States faces the uncomfortable fact that its goal of energy independence is increasingly at odds with reality, America’s energy security remains in lock-step with Saudi Arabia’s oil strategy. Luckily for American consumers, King Abdullah’s vision of a stable global-energy market is reflective of a deep understanding of the responsibility that Saudi Arabia has as the world’s No. 1 oil producer.

The key policy for King Abdullah is price stability. He has ensured that Saudi Arabia is on track to increase its production capacity by 15 percent by 2009 to more than 12 million barrels per day. This bodes well for the United States because it could be importing 70 percent of its oil in 2020 (compared to 58 percent today and 33 percent in 1973). Furthermore, the king understands that globalization of the energy sector makes energy security a common responsibility of consumers and producers. His vision expands the concept of energy security to include the new super consumers — China and India — and acknowledges that the worldwide energy-supply value chain needs to be protected.

Under the leadership of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a political and social reformation. It is incumbent upon the United States to work with this distinguished statesman to ensure that his vision becomes a permanent feature of this strategic, yet combustible, region.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting.

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