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At a Crossroads, Saudi King Tests the Winds of Reform

(By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)

Abdullah faces demands for democratic reform, fears within his own family that too much reform could be detrimental, and pressure from the Islamic clergy for a greater political role and stricter adherence to religious principles.

"Now he is the king, and he has the final decisions to make," said Khalid Dakhil, a liberal critic of the government and professor of sociology at King Saud University. "The contest is different. We have a different ballgame here."

Yet aides to the new king and editorialists close to the royal court are trying to tamp down expectations that Abdullah will undertake major political changes. They emphasize that like nearly every king before him, Abdullah will govern by consensus, as he did for a decade as de facto ruler following King Fahd's stroke. With a bulging treasury, Abdullah can dole out subsidies and wealth to all willing to follow his gradual pace. As much as they challenge the government, liberal and Islamic reformers these days also compete with each other for access to the royal family and its money.

To carry out far-reaching reforms, many say that Abdullah needs to strengthen political institutions, but they remain weak in the shadow of the monarchy. Religious orthodoxy still reigns, newspapers compete to publish the most obsequious praise for the royals, and many citizens say they do not feel they can speak freely in public about politics or faith.

So far, the centerpiece of Abdullah's reforms has been an election to choose half the members of 178 municipal councils in February. The government was forceful in urging Saudis to cast votes, although turnout was low and political parties were banned. Islamic activists fared well, demonstrating again the power of the religious establishment. Abdullah has also organized four meetings, in what was called a "national dialogue," where conservative clergymen sat down with others, including members of the long-marginalized Shiite minority; and he increased membership to 150 in the Shura Council, an advisory body whose influence is growing, although gradually.

Abdullah's boldest initiative may have been his decision to join the World Trade Organization, perhaps as soon as next month, forcing Saudi Arabia to adjust to global business and regulatory standards. Reformers in Abdullah's court hope this will shake up Saudi Arabia's dysfunctional bureaucracy, channel new oil wealth more efficiently than in the past, check corruption and stoke employment and training in modern industries. It is through economic modernization, more than dramatic political change, that Abdullah intends to leave his mark, some of his advisers say.

Abdullah's age suggests that another succession is not too distant. So far, the throne has been passed loosely by seniority among the 36 sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Still uncertain is how power eventually transfers to the grandsons, many of whom are more vocal in their vision of reform.

"He has to get control over his own agenda before events overwhelm him," said Dakhil, the liberal critic. "I think he's honorable, he's honest and he's sincere, and he wants to do something good for the people. The question is: Does he have the political will to go ahead?"

A Monarch's Origins

The Oil Boom
In the late summer of 1921, about 100,000 soldiers arrived at the walls of Hail, a citadel of the Rashid family tucked in barren desert mountains about 350 miles north of Riyadh. By November the city had surrendered and Abdul Aziz, the victorious warrior-king of nascent Saudi Arabia, took a bride from one of the region's defeated tribes, the Shammar, to bind them to his rule by marriage and also, at least in the view of some bitter Rashids, to add a sexual coda to his battlefield conquest.

Born in Riyadh in 1924, according to official accounts, Abdullah is the only son of this marriage. He is heir to a more direct tribal lineage than many of his half brothers. But his tribal identity is often muted in the eyes of his people. In Hail, sheiks of the Shammar, pouring bitter Arabic coffee and sweet tea in a billowing tent, tugged their chins in uncertainty when asked when Abdullah last visited the region. They think it may have been 1988, when he toured as crown prince with King Fahd.

"I was in middle school at the time," remembered Oday Hamanzani, a newly elected municipal councilor now nearing 30. "I was only carrying flags and waving at the king."

In Abdullah's home areas, Hail and the neighboring Northern Frontier region, there are few signs that he favored them during 23 years as crown prince. Both regions suffer from underdevelopment, say regional officials; Hamad O. Alogla, head of a Hail development commission, said his province's health service is probably the worst in the kingdom.

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