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Pressure Grows for Saudi Reform with New King

The death of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia placed his half-brother, Abdullah, on the throne. Although there was a rapid and smooth transition, there are questions about the direction the new monarch will take his country.

The accession of King Abdullah to the Saudi throne opens up some crucial questions about political and religious reform in the oil-rich country. But as one newspaper put it, discerning the intrigues of the Saudi royal family is as difficult as deciphering the workings of the old Soviet Politburo.

For some 70 years, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by a single family as an absolute monarchy. The royal family rules with the help of the powerful Islamic clergy, many of whom preach a firebrand, fundamentalist version of Islam called Wahhabism. There are no elections except for some minor municipal councils. Women have few social or political rights. Political dissent is not tolerated.

Dennis Ross, former U.S. special coordinator on the Middle East, is a longtime analyst of Saudi affairs. Speaking in Washington Tuesday at the 9-11 Public Discourse Project, Mr. Ross said King Abdullah is committed to very slow, gradual reform. But he notes that King Abdullah and the next in the succession, Crown Prince Sultan, are getting on in years. King Abdullah in his 80s and Prince Sultan is in his 70s. What will be interesting, he says, is who will become the Number Three in the Saudi hierarchy.

"Is King Abdullah going to, in a sense, make his own statement, put his own imprint on policy? And if he's going to do it, in what ways and how soon? I think the designation of the Number Three will be an interesting indication of openness to managing change within the [royal] family, which will also be a good indication to what the pace of reform outside [the family] is likely to look like," he said.

One possible contender for that slot is Prince Nayef, the brother of Crown Prince Sultan and powerful chief of police and internal security forces, who has kept a lid on dissent.

Elizabeth Jones, former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, says that as the population has grown, the royal family now has to confront issues like unemployment and education among their subjects.

"It has become a very important, very difficult question that absolutely has to be addressed," she said. "And it goes into how much of a, quote, reformer, is King Abdullah because those are the kinds of reforms we're talking about. They're not radical. But they are necessary for the survival of the Saudi royal family."

Oil has allowed the royal family to live lavishly. But cracks have appeared in the peaceful Saudi façade. The bombings of May 2003 in Saudi Arabia highlighted the country's homegrown terrorist problem.

Al-Qaida is believed to have its roots in the fundamentalist Islamic theology taught in much of Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, as were 15 of the 19 hijackers of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Mr. Ross says that with attacks now occurring on Saudi soil, there have been moves to curb some of the more extreme clerics. But, he says, extremist ideas continue to be taught in Saudi schools and exported abroad.

"But we have not seen what I would call any basic change in what is still the basic bargain between the royal family and the religious hierarchy," said Mr. Ross. "No basic change in the level of support for the religious hierarchy in the terms of how they define religious education internally, and also in how they promote religious education externally, especially through the madrassas [religious schools] and Islamic schools worldwide."

Mr. Ross says that without reform, resentment will continue to build in Saudi Arabia like a pressure cooker that he believes will eventually explode.