At a Crossroads, Saudi King Tests the Winds of Reform

By Anthony Shadid and Steve Coll
Washington Post Foreign Service
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a dozen Saudis who agreed to talk about these subjects candidly did so only if they were assured their names would not be published.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.

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

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.

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.

"It's significant for a Saudi politician to say that. We don't think he meant it literally speaking, that he agreed with every single line. But it is significant that he was sympathetic. He was sympathetic, he was understanding, he was accommodating and he was willing to open lines of communication," said Dakhil, the liberal critic. "He did not rebuff them."

They pressed ahead, and in March 2004, 13 were arrested, including some who met with Abdullah. A few weeks later, a delegation met with Nayef to plead for their release. Over a dinner of chicken, lamb, rice and broccoli, Nayef bluntly told them to stay out of politics, one participant said. "You're playing a game that's not yours," the participant quoted Nayef as saying. "You're getting into the business of the state, in which you don't belong."

"It became clear to us that he did not come to listen," the participant said. "He came to deliver a message."

Those kinds of stories have led many, including some in the family, to hope that Abdullah chooses Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh and the founder's 26th son, or another prince to become second deputy prime minister. Given Nayef's power as interior minister, that would be difficult. In the parlor game of Saudi politics, many say Abdullah's best choice may be to simply leave the position vacant for the first time in 40 years, in the hope that death or court politics will create a better option.

If Nayef is appointed deputy prime minister, it's "game over," said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to Prince Turki. "But if you leave it open, and that's what everybody is hoping for, then a younger generation will have an opportunity."

Gradual Reform

Ibrahim Ribidi's campaign posters for the municipal council of Buraydah still lie stacked up in the foyer of his modest home. Though he won the vote four months ago, there is no hurry to move from campaigning to governance. The councils have yet to hold a single meeting, and none has been scheduled.

"Maybe after school starts," Ribidi speculated, punching his cell phone, whose ring tone was set to the opening lines of the Muslim call to prayer. Meantime, he had decided to take a vacation to Brazil.

"There is some progress," Ribidi said. In Saudi Arabia, even "meeting a foreigner like you and talking about these subjects -- that's something new."

The languorous, unfinished municipal experiment is typical of the slow pace of reforms. At every turn, potential backlash looms, and debates still rage, often stoked by traditionalist scholars and preachers -- over whether women should be allowed to drive, whether insurance is prohibited under Islamic law, whether physical education should be introduced in girls' schools.

A restive farming region that has recently been the site of deadly gun battles between Saudi security forces and al Qaeda militants, Qaseem has produced many of the country's most influential and conservative religious scholars. "None has the right to be worshipped but God," declares a billboard in the city center, not far from the local McDonald's. It is a strictly religious declaration, but it encapsulates Qaseem's attitude toward the royal family: loyal, sometimes grudgingly so, but adamant that only Islamic law can be the basis for politics.

Alim, the democratic activist, also calls himself an Islamic conservative. He said Abdullah's record to date contains ample reason for skepticism that reforms will unfold quickly. "Maybe now the king will free himself" and pursue serious change, Alim said. "That's a possibility. But it's a possibility attached to an 82- or 83-year-old person. His face is tired. Why didn't Abdullah act sooner than this?"

By contrast, the liberal activist Dakhil is confident and hopeful, suggesting Abdullah will open the way for elections for the Shura Council in 2009 and possibly endorse constitutional protections for freedom of expression and organization.

"At some point, the state needs to change its contract with society," he said. "In the 21st century, the religious establishment cannot claim by any means that it represents society. You have to change this contract to allow the society to be represented in the main. The first thing is for the state to recognize that those changes have taken place."

He paused, as if contemplating the breadth of change he was endorsing.

"I'm being optimistic here," he said, grinning.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company