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At a Crossroads, Saudi King Tests the Winds of Reform
Abdullah has been very careful not to allow himself to be seen as a northern or Shammar partisan, which could split the kingdom on tribal lines. "He's a fair man. He's not going to give favors," said Saleh Shurayhi, leader of the Shammar in Hail.
In a family sometimes stereotyped for ostentatious living, Abdullah is seen by many as reserved, sincere and somewhat ascetic. He moved to end the royal family's habit of flying for free on the national airline, and of princes not paying electricity and water bills.
The new king is also frequently described as curt, and sometimes blunt. Prince Turki al Faisal, the onetime Saudi intelligence chief and next ambassador to the United States, recalled when the leader of a country he declined to name visited Abdullah in Riyadh while he was still crown prince: "I want to tell you something I hear about you," Turki quoted Abdullah as saying. "I hear that the money that comes from us in aid goes to your pocket. I'm not saying this. I hear this from people in your country."
"He brooks no niceties," Turki said. " If you make your argument short and sweet, you will get a short and sweet answer. If your speech is flowery with a lot of insubstantial wording and vocabulary, he will be polite but ask you, 'Why didn't you say it this way?' "
Abdullah's base has long been the National Guard, a praetorian army drawn from the country's tribes, including the Shammar, which maintains several battalions in its ranks. On most Wednesday afternoons, Abdullah conducts his majlis, a meeting open to the public, from the guard's headquarters. One son is a senior general in the guard, and other sons hold key positions. Even as king, he has yet to surrender his title as its commander.
While the guard is Abdullah's main source of power, patronage and protection, there are competing groups, including a set of influential family clans known as the Sudeiris, who control many important parts of the government.
Two of these brothers command other wings of the Saudi security apparatus: Abdullah's first deputy and crown prince, Sultan, is defense minister, in charge of the kingdom's military forces, while Sultan's brother, Nayef, runs the Interior Ministry, in charge of vast national police forces, including the domestic secret services. Another Sudeiri, Salman, serves as governor of Riyadh, where he has earned a reputation as a mediator within the family.
The sheer extent of the Sudeiri hold on government checks Abdullah's potential as king, many Saudis believe. While he has built good relations with Sultan and others in the clan, he is still outnumbered in his own court. "The National Guard will help him as a shield, but he can never use it as a sword," said Bassim Alim, a lawyer, writer and democratic activist. "The civil service is loyal to the Sudeiris. The National Guard is not involved with the daily life of the people. That's all the Interior Ministry," which also controls the kingdom's ubiquitous road checkpoints and border security.
A Country's Future
If there is one edgy theme to Abdullah's ascension, it is uncertainty about the future of his relationship with his half brother Nayef, the interior minister.
Although the seniority rules are not strict and depend on a family consensus, many see Nayef as next in line, perhaps sooner rather than later. Yet reformers see him as a powerful obstacle to change, a man close to the clergy, and inculcated with the inflexibility that comes with enforcing a sometimes draconian security regime. Nayef eschews the word "reform" for "development," preferring a term that does not suggest the system needs fixing.
The issue may come to a head in Abdullah's choice of second deputy prime minister, who would be second in line to the throne.
In January 2004 at the National Guard headquarters, Abdullah met more than a dozen reformers, among them the three jailed until their release this month. They presented their demands: greater room for political discourse, an independent judiciary and power exercised within constitutional limits. In a conversation that lasted more than an hour, Abdullah was said to have listened closely. "Your demands are my project," he told them.