At a Crossroads, Saudi King Tests the Winds of Reform
Thursday, August 18, 2005
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Ibrahim bin Abdullah Mubarak is a gruff man. On the phone, the lawyer forgoes florid Arabic salutations for a curt "thank you," then abruptly hangs up. At 61, he holds papers close to his eyes, his hand trembling. Defending cases in an often arbitrary system of justice has left him weary. But in the ascent of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's sixth monarch, he sees change -- vague, perhaps gradual, but nevertheless hopeful.
"Anyone who assumes the throne wants to distinguish his rule," Mubarak said in a sparse office in downtown Riyadh, with tomes on Islamic jurisprudence, embossed in gold, behind his desk. "The king wants to make his mark."
On Aug. 8, Abdullah freed three clients Mubarak helped defend -- prominent political dissidents jailed last year for signing a petition and holding meetings advocating a constitution for the kingdom. In his office, Mubarak had just listened to Abdullah's first speech to the nation, a short declaration in which he welcomed advice and promised to "dedicate my time to enhancing the pillars of justice."
Mubarak narrowed his eyes and nodded his head. "His words tell us what he is planning for his rule," the lawyer said.
Perhaps they do, but mainly in the voice of an elusive oracle. Two weeks after Saudi Arabia enthroned the 82-year-old Abdullah in a scripted transition cloaked in centuries-old traditions, his subjects are debating the portents in his abstract phrases and the meaning of his early pardons for imprisoned dissidents.
The country Abdullah inherits stands warily at a crossroads, uncertain whether real change is in the offing. From the conservative northern tribal regions to the liberal business capital of Jiddah on the Red Sea, ordinary Saudis are speaking tentatively about topics previously taboo, testing the culture of silence and intimidation that smothers so much political discourse here.
Yet during a road trip through the northern heartland of the kingdom, a dozen Saudis who agreed to talk about these subjects candidly did so only if they were assured their names would not be published. "We cannot say what we believe, even on the Internet, because you will go to jail," said one young civil servant. "No one is in a position to say what they believe. The walls have ears."
Abdullah has tried to signal a new openness by launching public campaigns that acknowledge some of the kingdom's problems, such as its increasingly visible pockets of urban and rural poverty, its abysmal highway accident rate, and its troubling incidence of drug addiction among young urban men. Yet public discussion about such issues, while new, is often cast in terms of conformity, with newspaper commentators and university professors repeating the official concerns authorized by the king.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia's sense of urgency about change is being undermined by skyrocketing oil prices. A middle-class culture of consumption and financial speculation has distracted many Saudis. New Hummers and Porsches prowl the streets of major cities; subsidized gas sells for less than a dollar a gallon; the stock market is soaring; and the kingdom still has no income tax.
With oil prices nearing $70 a barrel, many Saudis say they feel like they are at the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime boom, and trying to profit as best they can. Saudi oil exports have risen from $34 billion in 1998 to more than $150 billion this year.
One in three Saudis is estimated to own stock, and trading has become such a pastime that some government ministries have had to order their employees not to leave work for banks, where shares can be bought. A few Riyadh residents suggested that people were less interested in Abdullah's ascension than about the rise in the Saudi Tadawul All-Shares Index.
A Kingdom Divided
By most accounts, Abdullah is devout, principled and uncorrupt, an absolute monarch in a country where, ironically, his power remains relative. Inside the ruling House of Saud, he has cultivated allies, particularly among younger princes and the modernizing Faisal branch of the royal family. But according to those who claim to know, he remains a somewhat isolated figure in occasionally bitter family struggles that endure beyond the public's eye.